China and Strategic Instability in Space

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China and Strategic Instability in Space

Insights from Carla Freeman.

China and Strategic Instability in Space
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Carla Freeman – senior expert on China at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and co-author of USIP report “China and Strategic Instability in Space: Pathways to Peace in an Era of U.S.-China Strategic Competition” (2023) – is the 364th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Identify the main sources of instability in space. 

Space is vital to today’s global economy, scientific breakthroughs, as well as to many aspects of international security. There are myriad sources of human-driven instability in space that threaten it as a stable environment. A major challenge is that global space governance has lagged behind rapid developments in space technologies both in their increasing accessibility and affordability. As Bruce MacDonald, Alison McFarland, and I write in a recent study for the U.S. Institute of Peace, space technologies are now available to growing numbers of governments and private commercial entities who see space as an opportunity to advance their scientific, commercial, and security interests. There are new pressures on space, such as the accelerating deployments of satellites and rising space debris from testing anti-satellite weapons.

Improving space governance is difficult to address amid the intense strategic competition that exists among the most advanced space powers – the United States, China, and Russia. The U.S. economy is heavily dependent on space activities. It also relies on the use of space for its national security from surveillance to communications to missile launches and strategic nuclear-supporting space infrastructure.

Beijing considers outer space among the “commanding heights” of international strategic competition, and developing unparalleled prowess in this “strategic new frontier” serves its objective of achieving “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” China is investing heavily to be able to utilize space to capture industrial, scientific, and national security advantages that challenge U.S. capabilities.

What are the rising risks of China-U.S. rivalry in space? 

Militarily, U.S.-China rivalry in space is spurring technological developments aimed at using space not just as a platform for war fighting support systems, but also as a war fighting domain. China’s rapid advances in new capabilities to challenge U.S. dominance of the space domain are a factor in increasing U.S. investments to improve the resilience of its space-based military assets, develop new space weaponry, and boost its capabilities to identify threats to its space assets.

More international investments in space, where advances in technologies designed for military purposes often have civilian applications, and vice versa, certainly has potential upsides. Greater U.S. federal investment for space activities is galvanizing improvements in space-based positioning and satellite communications, and spurring space exploration activities, for example. Add to this intense competition among commercial actors in space technologies and activities. This new space race could be a source of faster progress toward developing space in ways that could have significant benefit for humanity and our capacity to address challenges on Earth.

However, U.S.-China rivalry is also accompanied by more military competition in space associated with actions like weapons testing that can damage the space environment. China conducted an ASAT [anti-satellite weapon] test in 2007 to test its capabilities to target space-based satellites, which are a critical element of U.S. surveillance capabilities and key to the ability of the United States to use high precision weapons. China’s 2007 ASAT test proved to be the largest debris-generating test ever recorded, adding huge quantities of space debris to the debris that already was putting satellites and space missions at risk.

China has not conducted a debris-generating ASAT test since 2007. Amid growing great power rivalry, however, other space powers have resumed or begun testing ASAT weapons. India did so in 2019 and Russia conducted a test in late 2021. Both tests generated debris, with debris from the Russian test forcing the International Space Station crew to take refuge in capsules.

Beyond this, U.S.-China military rivalry in space also carries other acute dangers. The risk of “nuclear entanglement” is one example we highlight in our USIP report. U.S. strategic nuclear warning and intelligence support to conventional warfighting activities are intertwined or “entangled.” With ASAT capabilities, the PLA can target parts of the U.S. satellite architecture that forms part of both the U.S. conventional and nuclear infrastructure. China’s position seems to be that Washington’s use of such satellite assets would make them legitimate targets, and the United States has not eliminated a scenario in which the U.S. could use nuclear weapons if U.S. or allied nuclear warning satellites were attacked.

So far intensifying U.S.-China rivalry has meant less rather than more communication between the two governments aimed at mitigating these risks.

Examine how China could weaponize its space capabilities.

One example the Pentagon has drawn attention to relates to China’s proliferating counter-space weapons to damage or destroy satellites for the purpose of degrading its enemies’ space capabilities – whether these are oriented toward military usage or toward civilian activities, such as communications, positioning, navigation, and timing. This has raised concerns that some civilian space capabilities China is developing could be weaponized for this purpose. A key illustration is a satellite with a robotic arm that can be used to clean up space debris. This type of satellite, also developed by other countries, could be deployed to damage other countries’ operational satellites in a conflict.

Analyze China-Russia space cooperation vis-a-vis the China-U.S. strategic competition.

China-Russia space cooperation is expanding amid growing strains with the West. Historically, there was limited Sino-Russian cooperation on the technological front. Early Soviet technical assistance to China’s space program fizzled along with the widening Sino-Soviet rift and China’s space program developed quite independently – spurred by the expertise of Qian Xuesen, a U.S.-trained scientist deported from the U.S. to the PRC in 1955 over alleged communist ties.

China-Russia defense ties started deepening after embargoes were imposed on China following the 1989 Tiananmen turmoil. Then, in the early 2000s, the two countries began cooperating diplomatically, working together at the United Nations on a draft treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space, or PPWT – a proposal that notably excludes ground-based ASAT weapons.

Chinese and Russia cooperation on space technology has been expanding in recent years, particularly amid the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia, initially over its occupation of Crimea. However, this cooperation is also related to China’s own growing technological space prowess. Previously, Russia had concerns about sharing technology with China while Chinese space analysts suggest that China was unhappy about Russia’s treatment of it as a junior partner in the space arena.

Today, however, the two countries engage in cooperation on their GLONASS and Beidou global satellite navigation systems. They have agreed to jointly develop an international lunar scientific research station and have announced plans to pursue joint crewed missions to the Moon and Mars. Growing technology transfers, weapons sales, and joint exercises have accompanied the two countries’ growing space partnership. China and Russia also cooperate on space debris monitoring – which is also space surveillance – and Vladimir Putin stated Russia would help China develop a missile defense warning system. The trajectory of burgeoning Sino-Russian space cooperation raises the prospect that it will extend to cooperation on counterspace capabilities targeting U.S. assets.

Assess how China-U.S. cooperation could contribute to space stability and global security. 

Space represents an arena that is outside the sovereign jurisdiction of any individual country and is a global commons, vulnerable to misuse. Today space is becoming congested with the presence of many new space actors with diverse interests in using space while technological innovations are also transforming the ways space can be used. To steward global commons for their sustainable use requires global governance. Without an international regime for outer space to address new activities, congestion, and technological deployments in space, we could see a “tragedy of the commons” unfold in space.

We can already see this happening with space debris and megaconstellation deployments, to offer two examples. The amount of space debris is growing, cluttering orbital space, threatening existing satellites, and creating risks for new space missions. Indeed, space debris could make some parts of space unusable. Planned for deployments of so-called “megaconstellation satellites” comprising constellations of tens and even hundreds of thousands of commercial satellites represent another source of growing space congestion. There are already proposals to put as many as half a million satellites in orbit in coming years with little understanding of the impacts of putting satellite numbers like these on both the space and Earth environment. Some experts even warn that poor regulation could mean the loss of a dark night sky.

When previous agreements on space were forged during the Cold War, space superpowers Washington and Moscow found common ground on preserving space as a peaceful and open global commons, despite their enmity, playing a key role in forging international agreements to help keep it that way. Today, mutual suspicions as well as policy constraints are among the factors hindering the United States and China from engaging in direct cooperation on space. However, the two countries share a mutual interest in the sustainable use of space.

Addressing the two examples above, for example, there are opportunities for the U.S. and China to take actions to mitigate the challenges they pose.  With respect to the first issue, Washington has led a widely supported initiative at the United Nations to end debris generating DA-ASAT [direct-ascent anti-satellite] testing. There is an opportunity to build toward an international agreement that has both U.S. and Chinese support, an effort that would be advanced if China were to join the U.S. in a voluntary unilateral moratorium on destructive ASAT testing.

With respect to megaconstellation satellites, the U.S. and China can take unilateral steps to ensure that their deployment takes into account the best scientific information possible. Beijing and Washington could separately increase research on the implications of expanding numbers of megaconstellations in orbit, and they could also join in a multistakeholder dialogue toward developing international coordination mechanisms to ensure the sustained viability of the orbital environment.