The Implications of China’s New Space Force

China could affect the rules of the road for military activities in space.

Robert Farley
The Implications of China’s New Space Force
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this week, Zachary Keck indicated that the PLA intends to create an autonomous Aerospace Force in order to handle space operations.  The earliest reports do not make clear whether the Aerospace Force would really represent a fourth service, or instead an autonomous branch (like the Second Artillery). Nevertheless, the idea of an independent military service dedicated to space affairs is worthy of interest.

On an international scale, how responsibility for space falls out in terms of military organizations has potentially large implications for the development of norms of appropriate behavior in space. Different services have different visions of the commons, and have powerful platforms for advocacy on what the “rules of the road” should look like. Services can also have strong attitudes about arms control. A service that owes its existence to a particular vision of freedom-of-action in space can provide powerful opposition to arms control agreements it finds threatening.

And so the configuration of services can have effects beyond the organization of military affairs in a particular country. But how does this configuration change, and how might a change in China affect how other countries design their defense bureaucracies? What we do know is that services and branches do not follow one single logic; the institutional framework of military organization depends on national interest, national resources, and the particular configuration of domestic politics existing at the point of decision.

But there’s certainly a follow-the-leader dynamic. After the establishment of the Royal Air Force in 1918, countries in Europe and elsewhere created their own air forces, although the specific responsibilities of those air forces varied according to circumstance. However, some important countries, including the Soviet Union, Japan, and the United States, did not allow independent air forces until after the war, if at all.

What’s less clear is how precisely the follow-the-leader dynamic functioned. An unpublished paper by James Hasik argues that relationships between officers are a key factor. By this logic, an emerging transnational community of “space officers,” conducting training and attending conferences, might spur activism in favor of independent space forces across the world. Of course, the need for a “space force” depends to some extent on actual access to space, which only a few of the most advanced countries regularly enjoy.

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In the United States, the Air Force has seized the space portfolio, arguing for the conceptual unity of air and space based on its experience controlling the air. However, even some associated with the Air Force have suggested the potential for an independent service to focus on space affairs. Any effort to create such an organization would obviously play out differently than in China, if only because of the role played by the independent Second Artillery branch, which has its own space concerns. For my own part, I’ve argued that, when conceived of as a commons, space resembles the sea more than it does the air.

However the debates in China and the United States shake out, the bureaucratic structure of how these countries understand space affairs will have a big effect on global norms of space management. As such, developments on the Chinese side bear close watching.