Trans-Pacific View

Coping With the Challenge of China’s Growing Space Power

Recognizing China’s status-seeking motives provides an important tool for U.S. policymakers.

By Lincoln Hines for
Coping With the Challenge of China’s Growing Space Power
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon

On January 2, 2019, China successfully landed the Chang’e 4 space probe on the dark side of the moon – making China the first country in history to do so. This accomplishment represents just one of China’s most recent steps toward fulfilling its goal of becoming “a space power in all respects.” In pursuit of this goal, China has become the world’s second largest spender on space capabilities. Driven by the dual motives of seeking status and security, China’s comprehensive modernization of its space program poses a challenge to U.S. security interests and global standing. However, by recognizing Chinese status aspirations, the United States maintains an important tool by which to temper competitive tensions, and mitigate the threat of a full blown space race.

Much of China’s space program is oriented toward enhancing China’s military power. By developing heavier launch capabilities, China can deliver intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and place heavy spy satellites in orbit. Similarly, China’s pursuit of satellite technologies contributes to China’s efforts of “winning informationized local wars.” Likewise, through China’s BeiDou navigation satellite system (the Chinese equivalent of GPS), Chinese missiles can increase their accuracy and lethality. Moreover, Chinese counterspace capabilities provide China important asymmetric advantages vis-à-vis the United States, facilitating China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy should a conflict break out between the two powers in the Taiwan Strait or in the East and South China Seas.

Interacting with Chinese security concerns, however, is China’s increasing desire to enhance its great power status. Chinese nationalist narratives blame China’s “Century of Humiliation,” in part, on the Qing Dynasty’s reluctance to adopt modern technology utilized by Western intruders. As such, technological achievements are viewed as important symbols of national power and as an effective currency for China to enhance its position at the great power table. To signal its aspirations for great power status, China invests considerable resources in expensive status projects. From the launch of the Dong Fang Hong-1 satellite in 1970, to more modern ventures – such as manned spaceflight, the construction of a space station in low earth orbit, or lunar exploration – Chinese leaders have invested heavily on projecting great power status both at home and abroad. By pursuing these expensive and technologically difficult projects, China can demonstrate that it belongs to an exclusive group of great powers.

These combined status and security seeking motives have important implications for U.S.-China relations. Rising powers such as China are often driven to “seek a place in the sun.” However, such efforts are often costly and can catalyze arms races by raising threat perceptions abroad and breeding suspicions of hegemonic intent. Symbols of national power are often capabilities that also have military applications. An illustrative case of this phenomenon is that of Wilhelmine Germany. Some scholars, for example, argue that despite facing greater land-based security threats, Germany’s status ambitions led it to invest in battleships (a status symbol at the turn of the 20th century) – which raised threat perceptions in Great Britain and ultimately reduced German security.

Overall, this combination of status and security seeking motives is likely to prove particularly destabilizing in the domain of space. Owing to the dual use nature of space technologies, almost any advance made by China in space can be portrayed as a potential threat to U.S. national security. This is especially true considering the opacity of the Chinese space program and its close ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Even ostensibly peaceful activities such as China’s manned spaceflight program can, and have, been depicted as security threats. Moreover, China’s technological achievements in areas unrelated to security – e.g. landing on the dark side of the moon – are likely to be read as a bellwether for China’s overall capabilities vis-à-vis the United States, contributing to U.S. fears of decline.

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As China’s space power continues to increase, some analysts contend that the militarization of space is all but inevitable. To respond to these challenges, the Trump administration is calling for the United States to establish an entirely new branch of the military, to be known as the Space Force. In isolation, such moves are only likely to exacerbate tensions between Washington and Beijing and may give rise to an arms race in space. As China’s economy continues to grow, Beijing will increasingly have the capacity to finance a space race. Considering the reliance of modern militaries and economies on space-based assets, a militarized space race between the United States and China would be disastrous.

In preventing a militarized space race, the United States needs to be attentive to the role of China’s aspirations for great power status. Chinese status ambitions provide U.S. policymakers an important tool for forestalling conflict and obtaining Chinese support for the status quo. China is more likely to support an international order in which it has a seat at the table, and the Chinese Communist Party in particular craves international recognition for its domestic political benefits. This provides an important source of leverage for the United States to promote its interests. In practice, the United States can informally recognize Chinese status as a space power through bilateral cooperation between NASA and the Chinese National Space Agency. The United States can allow China to send astronauts to the International Space Station (while it is still operational). Beyond the benefits of inducing cooperation, these activities will have the added benefit of acting as confidence building measures to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent escalation that could lead to conflict in space.

As of now, the United States does not cooperate with China in space. There are, in fact, many arguments against cooperating with China in space – including concerns over espionage, the PLA, and China’s opaque authoritarian government. Yet, pessimists forget that the United States has managed to find room for cooperation under much more difficult circumstances than are present today. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union managed to cooperate in outer space despite aiming thousands of nuclear tipped missiles at one another. By contrast, the United States and China are highly interdependent and are not ideological adversaries. Moreover, as China’s military and economy grow increasingly dependent on space-based assets, China will also stand to lose from a conflict in outer space.

An armed space race between the United States and China is not inevitable. However the Trump administration’s current approach to foreign policy makes it more likely. So far, the “America First” approach to foreign policy is hostile to multilateralism and unlikely to recognize China’s status aspirations. The current U.S. approach is likely to result in tat-for-tat escalation – a competition in which China will increasingly be able to finance. U.S. policymakers would be wise to recognize the importance of status considerations in Chinese space program and adopt a broader toolkit for mitigating competitive tensions in the increasingly important domain of space.

Lincoln Hines is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University. His dissertation focuses on the role of status-seeking in China’s space program.