Are China and the US Set for a Showdown in Space?

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Are China and the US Set for a Showdown in Space?

Conversations with Chinese experts highlight several misperceptions about China’s ambition in space.

Are China and the US Set for a Showdown in Space?
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

China’s space program is clearly of interest to U.S. policymakers and strategists. Academics have invested significant effort in researching China’s civil and military capabilities as well as its space goals. Much of this analysis mirrors the U.S. understanding of space as fitting into categories of espionage, military use, and scientific exploration.

Analysis which starts from China’s own conceptual framework is less developed, and Chinese views on space resources are particularly under-studied. Space resources deserve to be studied because of the potentially vast economic value and potential to cause inter-state conflict. China’s conceptual framework is important because China conceptualizes space activity principally within the context of economic development, which has important implications for space resources and property.

While many analysts believe the topic of space resources is far removed, there are at least two companies in the United States working on mining asteroids: Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources International (PRI). In 2015, Congress passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which established a “first come, first serve” principle for property ownership in regard to space mining, and the United States has granted a license for Moon Express to accomplish the first commercial landing on the moon.

The U.S. law has been controversial worldwide. Since China is a growing power in space and an active member in formulating international space policy, its attitudes are perhaps of greatest importance in normalizing activity related to space resource utilization.

While our literature survey uncovered numerous examples of influential space officials expressing ambitious Chinese goals for the utilization of in-space resources (see here, here, here, and here for more), we sought “ground truth” regarding the extent the which such views had permeated the larger strategy and policy community. To this end, Between November 7 and November 20, 2016, we held meetings and interviews with Chinese experts from a number of respected Chinese research institutions: Tsinghua-Carnegie Center; Peking University; Pangoal Institution; China Reform Forum; China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations; Beijing Technology Institute, in Beijing and Shanghai Institutes of International Studies; Tongji University, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences; and Fudan University in Shanghai.

In general, we found a significant gap between the attitudes, ambitions and confidence expressed by key space officials making policy statements about China’s space resource ambitions and the strategy and policy community, who were generally unaware of both these statements and space resource issues. This is perhaps not surprising, as the focus of these individuals is on largely contemporary space-related issues such as anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, missile defense, space force enhancement capabilities, and proposed arms treaties. However, this might also be cause for concern to U.S. policymakers and the international community, as it presents the possibility for China to strategically surprise itself, as it did with its 2007 ASAT test.

As U.S. policymakers begin to think about how to approach China regarding norms for space property and resource utilization, it is important to remove what might be forgivable but important misconceptions.

Misconception #1: China will play the role of the spoiler. In our assessment, based upon what we heard, China is unlikely to play the role of spoiler in space. In general, while Chinese thinkers arrived with an understanding of space as a global commons, we found them open-minded to a revision of space governance. Almost universally they remarked that the regime was underdeveloped for the sort of resource-related activities discussed. Importantly, Chinese thinkers did not take a strong ideological stand against the U.S. law, but rather framed China as being in a position of learning from the United States. Chinese thinkers did not in any way appear to feel threatened by U.S. commercial entities having a larger role in space. Nor did they evidence any upset of the broadening of activity to non-state entities.

Instead, China is quite open-minded about a new regime that incorporates commercial entities, property rights, and novel governance regimes. While most thinkers did not assess that China had private corporations capable at this point of undertaking such activities in space, several thinkers considered it quite possible that if the United States proved successful in this regard, that the PRC would encourage its billionaires to also move into this domain. At least two thinkers in two completely different settings confirmed that there are already discussions about modifying the draft basic space law to include a section affirming space property claims.

Misconception #2: Chinese approach to space resources is nationalist and can be characterized by resource nationalism.

In fact, China favors an internationalist, global governance approach to space. While our literature review did identify significant statements by space officials that suggested a nationalist approach and a tendency toward resource nationalism, we found no evidence of this in our interviews. Universally the thinkers we talked with viewed space through a global commons lens, though with openness to revision. None asserted any nationalist vision for celestial bodies or space resources, and all were firmly attached to playing as a “responsible stakeholder” within the existing global governance framework. Most thinkers in the communities we spoke to did not regard China as having sufficient independent capability to lead or go it alone, and in general were dismissive when confronted with what we considered ambitious and provocative statements.

Misconception #3: China is averse to U.S.-China space cooperation as it seeks to build its own rival coalition.

Quite the opposite — Chinese thinkers were universally hopeful about U.S.-China space cooperation. Generally speaking, the thinkers we engaged with were well aware of U.S. congressional limitations on cooperation with China, but hopeful this could change. While we might anticipate that there would be poor atmospherics and offense given the U.S. congressional bans, we found the Chinese attitude even-handed. We encountered a curious logic; rather than hoping to one day achieve a level of capability where they would not need to cooperate with the United States, the analysts we spoke with thought that once they achieved a high enough level of capability, the United States would no longer have the objection of China stealing technology and would find it beneficial, even feel compelled to cooperate.

Taken together, these realities suggest an openness of thought on the part of China to an expanded space regime of mutual interest. Earlier this year, Dr. Athina Balta, presenting to the UN office of Outer Space Affairs at a conference in Dubai, proposed that the most practical method to create an international regime for space property is to create a web of reciprocal bilateral agreements recognizing each other’s claims and refraining from interfering with activities of other licensees or permit holders. An ideal situation would be if China were to incorporate similar and compatible language regarding space property into its basic space law, and for the United States and China to have a bilateral reciprocal agreement to honor each other’s claims.

If the United States was to consider this in its interest, there is a present window of opportunity before China finalizes and passes its basic space law. In our field trip, we identified a number of policy innovation institutions and key thinkers in China sympathetic to expanding conversation on this topic, as well as key individuals with relevant expertise. A proactive course of action would seek to partner with these institutions to assist them in developing their own recommendations for domestic law and a bilateral agreement. The United States could assist this process by choosing not to frame it as a “securitized” arms control issue, but instead as a commercial and development issue. It could offer in-kind assistance to convene a series of roundtables for policy innovators, and include the small, but growing community of Chinese space entrepreneurs.

Using funding and authorities available to the U.S. ambassador, the U.S. government could fund travel to bring over prominent U.S. and international space industrialists, space-property-sympathetic lawyers, and congressional staffers, thus making available to Chinese policy innovators best-in-class thinking. The United States might also encourage the inclusion of representatives from Luxemburg and the UAE, who appear to have decided on similar legislation. It could co-host a series of roundtables which sought to create compatible domestic legal language and advance thinking on a bilateral reciprocal agreement.

In conclusion, the ambitious views of China’s space officials and scientists have not permeated into their grand strategy community. While China is unlikely to play the spoiler, it is also possible that China could strategically surprise itself with actions of international consequence that have not been broadly considered. The United States can encourage existing tendencies in China to construct its own compatible legislation and to begin work on a bilateral reciprocal agreement by co-hosting a series of round-tables with Chinese think tanks that provide the best expertise and frame the issue within the realm of commerce and development.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.