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Is China catching up to the United States in space?

Some of Beijing’s space goals are of limited strategic or economic value.

- April 23, 2019

April 24 is National Space Day in China — and the country has some celebrating to do. In January, the Chang’e 4 lunar probe landed on the far side of the moon, a successful demonstration of China’s increasingly sophisticated and ambitious space program. In 2018, China launched more rockets into space than any other country.

U.S. lawmakers and analysts are growing increasingly concerned about China’s space plans. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally mandated group, recently published a report describing China’s pursuit of “space power status.”

Where do Chinese capabilities and motives stack up, and what is the current state of U.S.-China relations in space? Here’s what you need to know:

1. What’s behind China’s pursuit of space power?

China’s interest in space — like that of other spacefaring powers — is multifaceted. Chinese leaders recognize the potential economic and security benefits of advanced space capabilities. Since observing U.S. military satellite technology during the Gulf War — which some analysts call the “first space war” — Chinese analysts have emphasized the importance of space power in modern military operations.

China’s military now pursues the goal of “winning informationized local wars.” This strategy recognizes the centrality of information technology in modern combat and seeks for China to better gather, transmit and use information, while denying these advantages to its adversaries.

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In pursuit of this goal, China is incorporating space-based assets such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites as well as the Beidou Navigation Satellite System (the Chinese version of the U.S. Global Positioning System) into its military operations. China is also developing a comprehensive set of counterspace capabilities that can threaten U.S. military assets in space, including direct-ascent antisatellite capabilities, as well as non-kinetic capabilities such as lasers, cyber capabilities and ground-based satellite jammers.

But analysts also note that some of China’s most expensive and ambitious space goals are of limited strategic or economic value — at least commensurate with their costs. Human spaceflight or lunar exploration programs, for example, bring little strategic or economic advantage.

From the perspective of status-seeking, these behaviors make more sense. Being able to demonstrate this type of space capability lets China signal that it has now joined an exclusive “club.” Through status signaling, Chinese leaders can boost national pride and increase China’s influence abroad.

2. But is China “catching up” with the United States?

Analysts estimate that China’s space-related spending is second only to the U.S. program, but budgets are an imperfect indicator for measuring capabilities. The more important question is whether Beijing spends this money effectively.

There are reasons to be skeptical about how effectively these funds will be spent. Political scientists often describe China’s policymaking as following a model of “fragmented authoritarianism” — where the central government may propose policies but their implementation is subject to bureaucratic haggling at lower levels of government, which can significantly distort and alter policy outcomes. Consequently, ambitious space goals articulated by the central government may look very different in their implementation.

China is also hoping to boost efficiency by allowing the emergence of a commercial space sector, including a diverse and growing number of private space companies. Although several of these companies rely on private capital, many of them also enjoy close ties to the government — an advantage for competing on the international market. China now has one of fastest-growing commercial space sectors.

But what does it mean to “catch up” to the United States? The lunar landing does give Beijing great-power bragging rights. In terms of military power, China’s development of counterspace weapons provides a powerful asymmetric advantage vis-a-vis the United States. The U.S. military is heavily dependent on space capabilities for power projection and combat operations, and its space-based assets — flying in predictable orbital paths — are highly vulnerable to attack.

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This means counterspace weapons could allow China to blind the U.S. military and provide China a tactical advantage in the event of a conflict. Ironically, as China increases its own reliance on space-based assets, its military will also become more vulnerable to U.S. counterspace operations.

3. What about U.S.-China relations in space?

U.S.-China cooperation in space is highly limited. Export controls on sensitive technologies and legislation such as the Wolf Amendment place heavy constraints on cooperation between the two powers. The most prominent example is a ban on Chinese participation in the International Space Station (ISS).

In justifying these restrictions, U.S. policymakers cite concerns over the close relationship between China’s military and its space program. This means policymakers see civilian projects as a potential Trojan horse, allowing China to steal sensitive information to facilitate its military modernization.

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This lack of cooperation between the United States and China could have worrisome consequences. A weaponized space race between the two powers could be highly destabilizing, potentially escalating into a conflict on Earth or creating space debris that threatens space-based assets for decades.

The issue here is that most space-based technologies are dual-use in nature, meaning that capabilities that are ostensibly civilian or commercial in nature can theoretically be repurposed for military gain. Some analysts even claim that China’s lunar exploration program could allow it to attack U.S. satellites that are in geosynchronous orbit, for instance. If U.S. policymakers perceive even seemingly innocuous capabilities as threatening, it is possible that race-like dynamics may emerge.

Limited cooperation between the two countries may also reduce U.S. influence over future rules and norms governing space. For example, the United States is considering defunding the space station, and potentially transferring it to private-sector ownership.

At the same time, China is planning to complete the construction of a space station around 2022 — and is inviting other countries to conduct experiments on its station. After denying China access to the ISS, the United States may find itself left out of future multilateral efforts in space.

R. Lincoln Hines is a PhD candidate in the government department at Cornell University. His dissertation focuses on the role of status-seeking in China’s space program.