Apart from the United States, the People’s Republic of China has the most advanced space capabilities of any country in the Indo-Pacific. China has developed novel bureaucratic structures for managing the military problem of space, structures which speak to China’s military and political ambitions.
The foundations of China’s interest in the military applications of space came in large part out of concern over U.S. missile defense capabilities. China has taken seriously U.S. claims to pursue “space control,” although how significantly those claims affected Chinese space planning is a more difficult question to answer. Early Chinese concerns were quite similar to those of the Soviet Union, worrying that American space dominance could undermine China’s nuclear deterrent through either missile defense or by blinding Chinese surveillance and communications.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also came to appreciate the need to use space in order to facilitate the conduct of modern, high-intensity networked warfare. Wars waged by the United States in 1991, 1999, 2001, and 2003 awakened Chinese military authorities to the promise and threat of digitized, informationized warfare. Such warfare inherently requires tight collaboration across domains (termed “multidomain operations” in U.S. military jargon), which requires real-time communications and a detailed picture of the battlespace. Chinese authorities came to appreciate not merely the threats posed by U.S. dominance, but also how space could enable the PLA to fight in a more modern fashion.
Consequently, China’s space doctrine has become similar to that of the United States; access to space enables military operations in other domains, while denying space to the enemy undercuts its ability to conduct coherent military ops. Indeed, space is critical to the functioning of the A2/AD system of systems that China has constructed in the Western Pacific, enabling the coordination of long-range fires and maintaining a clear picture of the battlespace. Indeed, as China’s space profile has grown, so has its vulnerability. China has expressed considerable concern over the development of American “offensive” space weapons.
China’s reaction to the standing up of the U.S. Space Force was relatively muted, expressing concern about the militarization of space and about the potential for an arms race. But China had already taken the leap several years earlier with a massive bureaucratic reorganization that changed how the PLA did space. In 2015 China re-organized its military bureaucracy in order to more accurately reflect these ambitions, resulting in the creation of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) and the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). Both of these organizations manage aspects of space warfare, but the latter is as close as China has come to creating an institutional analogue to the U.S. Space Force. As the next column will indicate, surface similarities give way to important differences in how China and the United States have decided to manage space power.