Trans-Pacific View | Security | East Asia

The US Congress Needs Facts, Not Hyperbole, on China’s Space Program

Alarming and factually challenged assessments of China’s space program should not guide U.S. policy.

By Gregory Kulacki for
The US Congress Needs Facts, Not Hyperbole, on China’s Space Program
Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

A recent report from the United States Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) contains alarming language about China’s space program. The first paragraph of the relevant section includes a sentence that demonstrates why no one, especially the U.S. Congress, should take the commission or its recommendations seriously.

In an effort to call attention to the rate of Chinese progress, the commission warns,

If plans hold to launch its first long-term space station module in 2020, it [China] will have matched the United States’ nearly 40-year progression from first human spaceflight to first space station module in less than 20 years.

America’s Friendship 7 carried John Glenn into outer space in 1962. NASA launched the first U.S. space station, Skylab, in 1973. Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to orbit the earth aboard the Shenzhou 5 in 2003. China’s space station, which will be about the same size as Skylab, is expected to be operational in 2022. As you do the math the commission apparently could not, you should remember the United States completed the Apollo program at the same time, landing 12 U.S. astronauts on the moon and safely returning them to earth.

This example illustrates the problems with fact and interpretations that appear throughout the commission’s report.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

These are not new problems. The USCC has consistently failed the vision of its founder, the late Senator Robert Byrd of Virginia, who hoped to give Congress a capability to independently conduct objective research on China. Not long after the USCC was created, Byrd sought to disband it. The space section of the 2019 annual report shows why.

One of the most consequential assertions in the report is that “China views space as a critical U.S. military and economic vulnerability.” It claims China is “prioritizing attacks on vulnerable U.S. space assets” and has “not seemed to openly recognize” the vulnerability of its own space systems. The commission warns China does not value its satellites to the same degree as the United States and has therefore developed a “space doctrine” that encourages “escalatory attacks against an adversary’s space systems early in a conflict, threatening to destabilize the space domain.”

The commission’s description of China’s “space doctrine” is pretty thinly sourced. It rests on the testimony of a single U.S. witness and a pair of quotes from two Chinese texts. One of the quotes is from the 2013 edition of the The Science of Military Strategy, an authoritative text written by a team of 35 Chinese scholars and published by the Chinese Academy of Military Science (AMS). The space section of the AMS text contains a lengthy description of Chinese intentions that is at odds with the description in the USCC report. It is difficult to understand how the commission could overlook the discrepancy, especially given they cited the text as a reference on Chinese “space doctrine.”

The 2013 AMS text makes clear the Chinese military not only understands China’s space systems are vulnerable, it is also deeply concerned about it. Moreover, the text explains that China is developing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons not to launch escalatory attacks on U.S. satellites, but to deter the United States from attacking Chinese satellites.

Consider the following passage in the text:

Space military systems, being the high ground of the territory of military modernization, are bound to be a critical object of attack and defense of opposing sides. In order to effectively hold back the hostile space activities of other countries and prevent one’s own space systems from suffering attack or damage, while strengthening the construction of defensive space capabilities at the same time, one still must purposefully develop certain measures and capabilities for space attack and, when necessary, exhibit both the capability to inflict substantial damage and effect on the space systems of the opponent as well as the firm will to prepare and dare to use that capability. This creates a certain psychological pressure and fear in the opponent, forcing the opponent to not risk initiating space warfare. When necessary, one can conduct limited space warfare operations as a warning or a reprimand to stop an opponent from recklessly escalating the level of space hostilities.

The group of China’s military scholars who wrote the space section of The Science of Military Strategy was even more direct about China’s intentions in a subsequent paragraph.

The overall goal of China’s military struggle in space is, under the condition of not jeopardizing the space rights and security of other nations, to guarantee the security of China’s space systems and to protect our country’s legal rights in the space domain. China’s military struggle in the space domain has the clear characteristics of being defensive and non exclusionary. Assuring our country’s space rights and space security are the beginning and the end of our struggle. We will not encroach on the space rights of other countries or seek space hegemony. … Only when another country has intentionally violated China’s space rights to the point of harming the nation’s space security will we carry out space deterrence and launch a retaliatory space attack. In the space domain, China’s bottom line is, as always, the principle of “if you don’t attack me, I won’t attack you.”

The AMS text appears to advance an argument for the development and testing of ASAT weapons that is comparable to China’s 1964 statement justifying its development of nuclear weapons. Chinese military scholars view ASATs as a means of space deterrence and indicate China will only use them for retaliation after being attacked first. The Chinese military’s “no first use” of ASATs policy is not as clear-cut as China’s public pledge on no first use of nuclear weapons. But it would be a useful starting point for constructive bilateral discussions on space security with the U.S. military, which also argues space deterrence requires ASATs.

It is encouraging that the commission chose to consult and cite an authoritative Chinese source like The Science of Military Strategy. It’s unfortunate they either did not understand, or care to convey, the extraordinarily useful information about Chinese military space policy it contains. There is another well-known and equally authoritative Chinese military publication the commission overlooked. It’s a classified textbook distributed to China’s missile forces by the General Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army in 2003. The 406-page Science of Second Artillery Operations repeatedly describes U.S. space capabilities as a decisive military advantage, not an Achilles’ heel. Moreover, it emphasized it is essential for China to acquire the same space capabilities.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

China’s steady improvements to its communication, earth observation, and navigation satellite systems offer supporting evidence that the view of Chinese military space policy presented in both the 2003 classified text and the 2013 AMS text is a more accurate and reliable guide to Chinese intentions than the spurious information on China’s “space doctrine” contained in the USCC report.

Unfortunately, the USCC report’s information becomes an especially important problem if the U.S. Congress acts on its findings. The USCC is mistakenly telling Congress that China and the United States have two completely different views on space warfare. In fact, it appears the United States and China are both seeking to prevent a military conflict in space by the same means. The USCC also suggests China is unwilling to negotiate away what it sees as a military advantage. But the evidence suggests the Chinese military is open to international negotiations that can lead to an agreement that would provide legal protections for all military space systems.

U.S. interests in space would be better served if Congress ignores the USCC report. Instead, Congress should direct the United States government to engage Chinese space professionals in a serious discussion about how to keep the peace in space.

Dr. Gregory Kulacki focuses on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China on nuclear and space arms control and is the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @gkucs. .