Insight - Building Stronger U.S.-China Relations in Space

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

By Brian Weeden, SWF Director of Program Planning

On January 11, 2007, China destroyed one of its aging weather satellites using a ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. In the aftermath, there were debates by U.S. scholars and policymakers alike as to the motivation for the test, and what it meant for U.S. policy and strategy. One year later, the United States used a converted ballistic missile interceptor to destroy one of its own failed spy satellites in what was officially stated to be an act of public safety, but many saw as a public demonstration of its own capability. The two events reignited international and domestic debates over strategic stability and deterrence, space weaponization, and the potential for a space arms race.

Over the last several years, we at SWF have been working to try and foster stronger relations between the U.S. and China in space, in part to prevent an incident in space that could spark or escalate conflict on Earth. Part of our efforts have been focused on increasing dialogue between Chinese space experts and international experts. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, we partnered with Beihang University to hold a series of workshops in Beijing on space debris, space debris removal, and space sustainability. The goal of the workshops was to bring U.S. and international experts to China to exchange perspectives with their Chinese counterparts, and to encourage similar research and discussions within China.

In addition, we have also published fact sheets and research on China’s ASAT testing in space and development of dual-use capabilities, and how China’s testing compares with historical and current efforts by the United States and Russia. Most of the ASAT capabilities China appears to be testing and developing are very similar to capabilities the United States and Russia have developed in the past, with dual-use between counterspace and midcourse missile defense. However, there is evidence that China may be also testing some new capabilities that neither Russia nor the United States operationalized in the past, such as direct ascent ASATs that can reach the geosynchronous region. All three countries have also spent the last decade testing and demonstrating rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) technologies, which also could be used for benign or military applications. I have also encouraged the United States to adopt a strategy based on denial deterrence and resilience, to help reduce its vulnerability to ASAT attacks.

However, ten years after the 2007 ASAT test, many of the same tensions and questions about the U.S.-China space security relationship remain. The U.S. national security community is still extremely concerned about the vulnerability of its space assets, and the potential for conflict on Earth to extend into space. The Department of Defense has publicly focused on a strategy of increasing the resilience of its own space capabilities to try and deter attacks, but some both inside and outside the government have advocated for a more aggressive response. The potential risks of aggressive policies and strategies for inciting or escalating conflict was a main component of a recent table-top exercise, co-sponsored by SWF and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That said, there are still options for improving the situation. In 2013, I published a chapter in a book on U.S-Sino relations by the Stimson Center, where I discussed challenges and options for U.S.-China cooperation in space. In 2015 and 2016, I was also fortunate to be involved in a project by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) on U.S.-China relations in strategic domains (space, cyber, maritime, and nuclear). Working with a Chinese co-author from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, we assessed U.S. and Chinese interests in space. Where those interests overlap, such as in ensuring the long-term sustainable use of space and enhancing space governance, both sides have an interest in fostering bilateral and multilateral initiatives to strengthen sustainability and norms of behavior. At the same time, both sides should work to mitigate tensions in areas where their interests may diverge, such as in testing and development of RPO and hit-to-kill technology.

There is also some progress towards agreement in multilateral efforts. In 2013, the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities published a consensus report on steps that could be taken at the national and international level to improve strategic stability in the space domain. The GGE report was the first time the United States, Russia, and China had all agreed on a UN space security resolution since the 1960s. And China has also been a constructive contributor to the effort within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) to develop guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space. The first set of 12 guidelines were approved by all 84 members of UNCOPUOS in June 2016, and work continues on reaching consensus on a second set by 2018.

Last month, I traveled to Beijing to take part in a workshop commemorating the launch of the Chinese-language edition of the NBR book. Part of the discussion included updates on progress made since the project first began, including the first meeting of U.S.-China bilateral discussions on space security.  However, the discussion also featured significant concerns from the Chinese participants, and uncertainty from the American participants, for the future. The Chinese participants felt that, contrary to the debate over the U.S. relationship with Russia, both the Trump Administration and Congress appeared to be in agreement that the U.S. needed to take a more aggressive approach to China. This perception, coupled with the renewed calls for space-based missile defense and recent remarks from top U.S. military leaders on the need for the U.S. to “prepare for a war in space,” has led to deep concerns within China over the future of the U.S.-China relationship in space.

SWF also recently held a panel discussion on the U.S.-China relationship in space. Experts discussed recent developments in capabilities, policies, and strategies by both the United States and China on space security, and also provided some of the Chinese cultural perspective on space is so important to their national prestige and development. The panel also expressed concerns about the possibility of both sides pursuing a “first mover” strategy to take out each other’s space assets that could fuel instability, and whether each side understood the perceptions some of their national policies and activities had on the other.

Unfortunately, the tensions between the United States and China in outer space are likely to continue. The current leadership of both countries have a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy than previous governments, and there are real concerns on both sides about technological advancements and strategy instability in space. SWF, along with our partner organizations, will continue to work with both countries to try and find ways to increase awareness, promote dialogue, reduce tensions, and minimize the risk of conflict that could jeopardize the long-term sustainability of space.

Last updated on August 23, 2017