How Should the US Engage China in Space?

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How Should the US Engage China in Space?

Examining the maritime domain for lessons on a strategic way forward for U.S.-China cooperation.

How Should the US Engage China in Space?

The International Space Station (March 2009).

Credit: NASA

China is striving to become a space power that rivals or surpasses the United States, Russia, and Europe. In September 2006, China tested lasers against U.S. imagery satellites in a manner that could potentially blind or damage them in future conflict. For U.S. officials, this event and China’s subsequent destruction of its own weather satellite in 2007 signaled that space was a “contested domain.” Subsequently, in 2011, U.S. lawmakers passed legislation that banned cooperation between the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) and the China National Space Administration – largely in response to China’s history of espionage against U.S. technical industries.

The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy categorized China as a revisionist power, and through this lens, it seems strategically sound for the United States to shield its precious technical advantages from a potential adversary. Nevertheless, some NASA officials insist that the United States should still collaborate with China to capitalize on a revolutionary period of high technical exchange between China and other space powers. Other officials warn that if the U.S. and China do not find meaningful ways to cooperate in space, relations could devolve into greater mistrust and lead to conflict. To guide strategic thinking on U.S. space policy, this article submits that policymakers may gain strategic insights on how to address China’s growing influence in the space domain by examining its actions in the maritime domain.

Deriving Strategic Insights from Sea to Space

To derive strategic insights from the maritime environment for the space domain, this article surveys how China: 1) applies force, 2) manipulates laws, 3) shapes the environment, 4) cooperates internationally, and 5) conducts diplomacy.

First, China possesses three major maritime agencies that apply force in order to protect and pursue its interests: the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), People’s Armed Police (PAP) and the Maritime Law Enforcement Forces that include the Coast Guard, and the Maritime Militia. As Andrew Erickson notes, each agency represents the largest of its kind globally. The PLAN commands over 300 ships (whereas U.S. Navy has 277 as of 2017) and its Coast Guard has over 1,200 ships.

In their research on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, scholars Christopher Yung and Patrick McNulty find that China utilized its military and paramilitary forces 148 times from 1995 to 2013 – more than all other active claimants (Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan) combined in the same period. Their research concluded that as China’s capabilities increased, Beijing was more likely to use force to advance its interests and less likely to defer to legal or multilateral solutions.

From a space perspective, U.S. policymakers can surmise that if China had a comparable offensive capability in the space domain, it might also prefer utilizing force to challenge rivals over other means. Though China currently does not have an offensive space capability on par with the scale of its maritime forces, the U.S. Department of Defense 2017 Annual Report to Congress asserted that the PLA is aggressively acquiring a range of counterspace capabilities. Given the fact that there are no international limitations on developing ground-based counterspace weapons, China may pursue an equivalent path of developing a high quantity of systems to overwhelm adversaries during conflict.

Second, China could reinterpret laws as a pretext to apply force. In the maritime domain, China reinterprets the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to challenge U.S. freedom of navigation patrols through the South China Sea. China claims waters extending past 12 nautical miles and into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), saying that foreign states must refrain from threatening the “territorial integrity or political independence” of the owning state. Concurrently, in 1992, China promulgated domestic maritime laws that extended its sovereign claims and deemed the commercial or research activities of other states illegal in contested waters. The international community at large does not recognize this reimagining of the EEZ; however, it does provide China some legal footing and domestic cover to deploy maritime forces in this region.

Similarly, the Central Military Commission is exploring the legalities for the use of force in space. PLA doctrine proclaims the need to destroy, damage, or disrupt an adversary’s space capability to secure victory in the information space. Nationally, China codified its security strategy of active defense – using defensive counterattacks in order to spoil the offensive actions of an adversary – in its National Security Law of 2015. By watching the evolution of China’s space-related domestic laws or reinterpretations of international laws, U.S. policymakers may find China strategically telegraphing its intentions through legal maneuvering.

Third, when China feels international laws are unfavorable, it may create an alternate framework that advances its own interests. Shortly after a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration of The Hague ruled against China’s activities in the South China Sea in 2016, China announced that it would create a “maritime judicial center” and a “maritime arbitration center” to promote its own vision for maritime law. China claimed that this endeavor would advance the nation’s role as a maritime power and support the development of its Belt Road Initiative. Skeptics assert that China initiated this endeavor to harden its claims on disputed territories and to divert cases away from UNCLOS courts. By doing so, China can create legal precedents to interpret international maritime laws and begin to undermine the international maritime system framed around UNCLOS.

In the space arena, China is not anywhere close to rearranging an entire judicial system around its views; however, it actively participates in international space organizations and introduces measures that could limit the ability for the United States to project force. Through the United Nations, China and Russia have twice (2008 and 2014) proposed the legally binding Treaty of Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). The primary U.S. objections to the treaty were that it did not include verification mechanisms, only applied to space-based weapons, and did not include ground based ASAT weapons – a primary counterspace capability China is advancing.

Fourth, policymakers could also examine China’s maritime cooperation initiatives to envision potential space cooperation. China’s counterpiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden has slowly emerged as a valuable mechanism to improve U.S.-China cooperation as seen through the counterpiracy exercises of December 2014. On a grander scale in June 2017, China laid out an ambitious vision for cooperation in relation to the “Maritime Silk Road” as part of its larger Belt and Road Initiative. This plan envisions the establishment of cooperative principles, environmental norms, maritime security, and “collaborative governance” to achieve mutual prosperity. If one believes in China’s sincerity, working cooperatively across these lines could greatly reduce security tensions and set conditions for long-term mutual gain.

Subsequently, China is pursuing international cooperation in space – not only for security and economic reasons, but also to bolster the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party to domestic and international audiences. The European Space Administration (ESA) has already expressed desires to cooperate with China on human space flight and the use of its future space station. China especially values its relationship with ESA due to the opportunities to trade and transfer technologies denied by the United States. China and Russia have also agreed to cooperate on human space flight and deep space exploration. Though these initiatives are not on the scale of a Maritime Silk Road, they do offer U.S. policymakers opportunities to work with a rising space power for positive ends.

Finally, the United States should pay attention to China’s diplomatic and engagement efforts with other nations. Contrary to the cooperative tenets for a Maritime Silk Road, in 2016, China convinced Cambodia to block an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) joint statement that recognized The Hague’s arbitration ruling on the South China Sea dispute in favor of the Philippines. In June 2017, Vietnam resisted China’s demands to vacate an oil venture within its EEZ, but eventually capitulated when China threatened to use force. The most concerning aspect for Vietnam was an atypical silence from its neighbors – particularly from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore. Apparently, China’s political and economic leverage over these nations prevented them from publicly sympathizing with Vietnam or rebuking China’s actions.

Seemingly, when pressed, China uses soft and hard power tactics bilaterally to dislodge multilateral initiatives that counter it interests. Could China disrupt the U.S.-European alliance as it did with ASEAN unity? At this stage, Chinese-European cooperation in space seems well intentioned. Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers should consider whether China’s growing space relations with Europe, Russia, or any other space power could complicate U.S. interests in other areas. As China strengthens its partnerships, its ability to shape laws, institutions and the strategic preferences of others increase as well.


The United States sits at an important period to develop a comprehensive space strategy that addresses China’s growing influence. U.S. cooperation with the Soviets in space during the Cold War was not due to a desire for true cooperation, but a means to manage a potential crisis related to the management of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. The United States could develop a similar mechanism for limited engagement with China to send positive signals and reduce misperceptions.

China’s activities in space have already intersected with U.S. interests and will only increase in frequency and intensity over time. In the end, for the United States to compete and lead in the space domain, it must engage new players and shape the contours of the game. If Washington is worried about how China will play the game, it can always look in the maritime arena for strategic clues.

Adam Yang is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corp and a student at the Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.