China’s space programme: a rising star, a rising challenge

Dr Mark Hilborne, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

China’s successful launch today of the first section of China’s new modular space station, called Tianhe (‘Harmony of the Heavens’) has again highlighted the pace of the country’s space programme. As the latest in a string of recent mission successes, it has inevitably led to warnings of an impending or ongoing space race. Such warnings may be misplaced – many of these scientific missions may well have no relation to strategic competition. Nonetheless, the domain of space throws up very particular challenges in identifying the character and intent of any state’s programme – space assets such as satellites are remote, and their capabilities can only be estimated. Most space platforms and technologies are dual-use, able to perform civilian or military tasks, creating ambiguity. Additionally, military classification and secrecy permeates the history of the space era, reducing further the ability to obtain a clear understanding of the domain, and raising the potential for misperception.

These characteristics combine to create substantial difficulties for strategic stability in the domain, particularly at a time where dialogue and diplomacy between global powers is limited. However, these are amplified by the nature of China’s policy apparatus and a number of specific programmes. China’s policy-making is notably opaque, while President Xi Jinping’s ‘military-civil fusion development strategy’ obfuscates the distinction between military and civilian power throughout the spectrum of many leading technological areas as well as the expansion of infrastructure. This intersects with particular sensitivities on behalf of the US derived from its critical dependence on space-based capabilities. The result is an environment ripe for miscalculation, with little in the way of a stabilising anchor.

As more Chinese sources are translated, there is little to dispel those concerns, as a recent study by the China Air and Space Institute has concluded. Having conducted a vast survey of Chinese sources, this study notes that China views space as a barometer of US-China relations and intends to overtake the US as the dominant nation in space in the next decades. This creates part of a wider challenge to the US and the Western world. However, as more and more facets of modern life depend on access to space-derived capabilities, the space domain will have a particularly critical impact on strategic stability.

China’s achievements

The space domain has been host to remarkable progress, and, indeed, expansion in recent years, across the military, commercial and civilian sectors. The scale of space operations and the number of nations that have recently begun space programmes, alongside many new commercial operators, are beginning to transform the domain. Reusable launch stages have become familiar sights, satellites are shrinking to miniscule dimensions, reducing costs and introducing new potential to a wider array of operators, and functions such as on-orbit rendezvous, servicing and manufacturing capabilities driven by developments in autonomy and robotics are just beginning.

Amongst the achievements and advances, however, China’s space programme stands out as particularly impressive, with the last two years alone exhibiting developments that eclipse many nations’ entire accomplishments in space. The launch on 28 April of the core section of China’s new modular space station, to be called Tianhe(‘Harmony of the Heavens’) highlights this progress. Impressive in its own right, this space station will become operational at a time when the International Space Station is nearing the end of its service life and is thus representative of the wider challenges that China’s space programme is beginning to present to other actors.

The space station will sit atop a broad series of recent successes. The Chang’e lunar missions (named after the ancient Chinese Moon goddess) of 2019 and 2020 achieved humankind’s first landing on the dark side of the moon, and the first return to earth of lunar samples since the 1970s. The Tianwen-1 (“Quest for Heavenly Truth”) entered orbit around Mars in February and is scheduled to land a rover this May. Collectively, these developments will help underpin China’s crewed spaceflight programme, which is anticipated to include a lunar base, and a Mars mission to be launched in the next decade.

Not all developments can be seen as purely scientific however – many are clearly military in purpose. Of particular note, it appears a spaceplane was tested in December last year, similar in nature it seems to the US X-37 – though details are murky – while the development of counterspace capabilities, specifically direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) have been demonstrated. China also has an expanding fleet of remote sensing satellites – the Yaogan series – that, despite their nominal civilian and scientific function, are likely designed for military intelligence gathering and targeting.

The ambiguity of space, the enigma of China

These latter examples illuminate a fundamental characteristic of operations in the space domain: their ambiguity. Most technologies, and most platforms in space, have dual-use potential. This is the case for all the main categories of space systems – launch, orbiting platforms and tracking. For instance, synthetic-aperture radar on Earth observation satellites is useful for a range of remote-sensing activities for environmental monitoring, but equally it is an excellent tool for the identification and surveillance of military targets. A satellite used for one purpose could be indistinguishable from one used for the other, or indeed tasked with both functions.

Thus, gaining a clear picture of how a potential opponent is configured in space, and what intentions underpin those configurations, is fraught with uncertainty. This is amplified by the difficulty in attribution in space given its remoteness, and the hazy regulations of what is permissible in space. Space, then, in many respects is a natural grey zone.

While military secrecy has been a long-standing facet of space operations by all the main space-faring nations since the Cold War, China’s policy-making – in space and more broadly – is notably difficult to penetrate and this further increases uncertainty within the domain. Judgement of the country’s ambitions in space often has little on which to base itself other than the outward form of the programmes themselves.

China maintains that its ambitions in space are peaceful. Beginning in 2002, China began work with Russia to formulate a treaty to prevent weaponizing space. This resulted in the draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) in 2008 (updated in 2014). However, other actions undermined Beijing’s peaceful credentials. Most notorious was its 2007 direct ascent ASAT missile test, a weapons type that the draft PPWT notably did not cover. In 2013, China launched a rocket on what was apparently a high- altitude test mission – official statements suggested it was ‘to obtain first-hand data regarding the space environment at different altitudes’. However, rumour at the time and subsequent analysis suggests this was probably a high- altitude ASAT missile. Though Chinese media claimed the test only reached an altitude of approximately 10,000 kilometres, the missile was tracked to the altitude of geostationary orbit (roughly 36,000 kilometres). If true, this test marks a first for ASAT technology, and creates the possibility that satellites in geostationary orbit are now within range of such weapons.

Military–civil fusion

A broader trend that illuminates the difficulties in distinguishing military from commercial capabilities is the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of military–civil fusion (MCF), unveiled in 2016. This is an expansive and comprehensive national strategy with the central goal of enabling the People’s Republic of China to drive innovation in both realms. To achieve this, the main partitions between China’s civilian, commercial and military research are made as transparent and porous as possible, facilitating communication and coordination between scientific research institutes, universities, commercial enterprises and the military, particularly in the areas of big data, semiconductors, 5G, advanced nuclear technology, aerospace technology, and artificial intelligence.

This has extended to the reform of the Academy of Military Science, and the recruitment of civilians into scientific research by China’s military. Over 61 universities are now supervised by China’s defence industry agency. One of the goals of the programme is termed ‘the fundamental domain resource sharing system’, designed to enmesh military requirements into civilian infrastructure such as roads, railways and communications networks – some of them in other countries. Increasingly, this extends to space and information networks. Undertakings such as this create inevitable concerns of growing military capabilities shrouded in wider technological or commercial progress. When considering the space domain, policy options such as MCF further obfuscate the inherent difficulty in identifying military capabilities or intent due to dual-use technologies and the ambiguity of the domain due to its remoteness. This creates an unstable fabric where the opportunity for misperception and instability is heightened.

Given these characteristics, China’s dynamic rise in space is generating extreme sensitivities within the US. The level of investment in and reliance on space by the US – far more than any other nation – as well as the symbolic value of space in the former bilateral competition with the USSR during the Cold War will mean that changes to this domain have a particular impact on Washington’s strategic concerns.

Even though the US possesses unparalleled capabilities in space, providing it with extensive services and information – and, in particular, tremendous military advantages – its assets are virtually defenceless and demonstrate profound vulnerability. This generates a significantly different dynamic compared to other elements of military power. Such defencelessness is an inherent characteristic of space platforms in that satellites must be lightly constructed and are therefore difficult to protect.

This, for the US, is resulting in an asymmetry of vulnerability, or a vulnerability gap, which describes the liability derived from the dependence of the US on these assets despite the advantage it gains from its space capabilities relative to other states. This gap, it can be argued, may create the temptation in certain opponents to attack and disrupt US space capabilities. Opponents might plan to prosecute an attack in an early phase of a conflict, hoping to cause surprise and perhaps disarray and a disproportionate advantage.

Such opponents might also calculate that, if those early attacks on US space assets do not create an existential threat, there would be minimal risk of retaliation and the attack would be considered worth the risk. An adversary might also calculate that even if the attack were attributed, and the US responded in a way that destroyed a much greater number or proportion of the enemy’s space assets, that adversary would regardless benefit from the action, since overall US military capability would be disproportionately impaired given its dependence on space assets. This creates a strong temptation for asymmetric, pre-emptive attacks.

Limited transparency and a remote and ambiguous operating environment produce a tendency towards worst-case assumptions. Strategic dialogue that would help build greater trust and transparency has been slow in coming. A Civil Space Dialogue was established through the US–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2015, and there were two subsequent meetings. However, China pulled out of the 2018 meeting and nothing was scheduled again until 2020. This rescheduled meeting had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given deteriorating relations generally, the future of these meetings is unclear. The US and other Western states have also been slow in translating sufficient documents to gain greater clarity. As attention turns from the Middle East and counter-terrorism, and pivots to the East, efforts are accelerating but are still limited.

The most recent and extensive report examining Mandarin sources is the CASI/CNA report China’s Space Narrative. This has translated a vast selection of Chinese literature related to space, and many of its findings do not necessarily allay worst-case interpretations. Principally, it notes that China aspires to eclipse the US as the world’s major space power, referring to official statements that set this goal for 2045. The broad narrative is found to depict the US as a domineering space power, while, in contrast, China is represented as a peaceful actor committed to economic development and international cooperation with states ‘regardless of political system and level of economic development’.

China views the competition between itself and the US as reflecting their wider relationship, and, as China seeks global power, space will be an important element of this course. The main driver is national security, which space will facilitate by enhancing China’s military capabilities while also denying the US access to space via a suite of counterspace capabilities. While national security is central, as China develops space-based capabilities it will gain economic and diplomatic leverage, further challenging the US across the spectrum of national power.

These various threads would probably be cleverly interlaced by Beijing. China will be increasingly able to offer technical and scientific support to nascent space programmes in other countries, gaining political and diplomatic leverage. This could be followed by exporting certain aspects of technology, along with the construction of infrastructure. Finally, the creation of its own BeiDou Global Navigation Satellite System would allow China to further wean other states off US or Allied military systems. Facilitating this is the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, created in 2008 to act as China’s key instrument for international space cooperation.

Despite the integration of space policy, the CASI/CAN report notes that there are still competing visions and thus there exist discrepancies. For instance, ambitious goals (of an enduring cislunar and lunar presence and the industrialisation of the extraction of space resources) featured in plans set out by institutions – such as the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology – are not fully represented in the 13th Five-Year Plan. Achieving them would certainly constitute a formidable challenge. But, even so, it is clear that the Chinese leadership has identified space as a key area that will enable China to realise its great power ambitions and challenge for supremacy. This leadership is fully supportive of the space programme’s development by maintaining consistent focus and investment.

Hostility in space?

China’s increasing presence and capabilities in space are just one avenue by which the ruling party seeks to enhance the nation’s strength, wealth and pride. The space programme is viewed as an important manifestation of China’s technological prowess, which can enhance all levers of national power – political, economic and military. Beijing’s ambitions in space are not by themselves unusual – many states seek similar goals through similar plans. However, the scale and ambition of China’s programme, while notable in itself, is also triggering significant reverberations across the domain and below. Space is now so crucial for the key functioning of modern states that any shift in dynamics can create unease. The domain’s remoteness means monitoring is difficult, while the rules governing space are hazy.

Furthermore, most capabilities in space are dual-use technologies. When overlaid with China’s rather impenetrable policy formulation, other space-faring nations may arrive at pessimistic conclusions, particularly those with a great deal at stake in space. A greater understanding of China and its ambitions in space has been slow to materialise. However, as it does, it begins to reveal a highly competitive agenda, with the objective to eclipse the US in space by mid-century being clearly laid out and all underpinned by a suite of counterspace capabilities. This constitutes part of a wider challenge to the US across the full spectrum of national power. However, the tensions that arise due to competition in space trigger particular sensitivities, and these will need careful management to avoid space becoming a domain of outright hostility.

(This article first appeared as part of the Lau Institute’s Policy Series 2020, ‘China in the World’. It has been slightly modified here.)

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