U.S. Space Dominance Under Threat From China

A Long March 3-B rocket lifts off with China’s Chang’e-3 lunar rover. (Credit: CAST)

First in a Series

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The United States’ leading position in space is increasingly under threat from China’s surging space program, a new report to Congress warns.

“China views establishing a leading position in the economic and military use of outer space as a core component of its goal to realize the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,’ or the ‘China dream’—an ambitious vision to restore what Beijing views as its historical leadership role in world affairs,” according to the report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. [Full Report]

The commission’s 593-page annual report included a lengthy section about China’s military-run space program. The review found that China has:

  • dedicated high-level attention and ample funding to catch up to and eventually surpass the United States and other space-faring nations;
  • developed specific plans to dominate cislunar space economically;
  • advanced its terrestrial geopolitical objectives, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) designed to develop economic and political ties with other nations;
  • created an indigenous space sector through a military-civil fusion strategy;
  • pursued aggressive state-backed financing to establish a commanding position in the commercial launch and satellite sectors;
  • used Hong Kong-based companies to exploit legal loopholes and uneven enforcement to obtain export-controlled technology from the United States; and,
  • fielded an array of direct-ascent, cyber, electromagnetic, and co-orbital counter space weapons capable of targeting nearly every class of U.S. space asset.

The report recommends that Congress direct the National Space Council to develop a space strategy that would include:

  • a long-term economic space resource policy strategy;
  • an assessment of U.S. strategic interests in cislunar space;
  • an assessment of the U.S. Department of Defense’s ability to protect communications and navigation satellites;
  • a space commodities exchange to ensure the U.S. drive the adaptation of international commercial standards;
  • a plan to streamline and strengthen U.S. cooperation with allies and partners in space; and,
  • an inter-agency strategy to defend space supply chains and critical manufacturing capacity.

The commission also recommended Congress direct the Defense Department to take steps to counter “China’s and Russia’s destabilizing approach to military operations in space.” The recommendations included:

  • protecting freedom of space navigation and keeping lines of communication open, safe, and secure;
  • strengthening the credibility of U.S. deterrence in space; and,
  • ensuring that military space assets are designed to increase survivability, redundancy, reusability, resilience, rapid replacement, and disaggregation.

The report also recommended the Trump Administration actively participate in international institutions to shape policies and standards that advance the nation’s space interests.

The commission’s key findings, recommendations and overview of China’s space program follow.

2019 Report to Congress
U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

https://www.uscc.gov

China’s Ambitions in Space: Contesting the Final Frontier

Key Findings

  • China’s goal to establish a leading position in the economic and military use of outer space, or what Beijing calls its “space dream,” is a core component of its aim to realize the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In pursuit of this goal, China has dedicated high-level attention and ample funding to catch up to and eventually surpass other spacefaring countries in terms of space-related industry, technology, diplomacy, and military power. If plans hold to launch its first long-term space station module in 2020, it will have matched the United States’ nearly 40-year progression from first human spaceflight to first space station module in less than 20 years.
  • China views space as critical to its future security and economic interests due to its vast strategic and economic potential. Moreover, Beijing has specific plans not merely to explore space, but to industrially dominate the space within the moon’s orbit of Earth. China has invested significant resources in exploring the national security and economic value of this area, including its potential for space-based manufacturing, resource extraction, and power generation, although experts differ on the feasibility of some of these activities.
  • Beijing uses its space program to advance its terrestrial geopolitical objectives, including cultivating customers for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while also using diplomatic ties to advance its goals in space, such as by establishing an expanding network of overseas space ground stations. China’s promotion of launch services, satellites, and the Beidou global navigation system under its “Space Silk Road” is deepening participants’ reliance on China for space-based services.
  • China is taking steps to establish a commanding position in the commercial launch and satellite sectors relying in part on aggressive state-backed financing that foreign market-driven companies cannot match. China has already succeeded in undercutting some U.S. and other foreign launch and satellite providers in the international market, threatening to hollow out these countries’ space industrial bases.
  • The emergence of China’s indigenous space sector has been an early and notable success of Beijing’s military-civil fusion strategy. The aggressive pursuit of foreign technology and talent gained through joint research and other means, especially from the United States and its allies and partners, continues to be central to this strategy and to China’s space development goals in general.
  • The Chinese government and military use Hong Kong-based companies to exploit legal loopholes and uneven enforcement in U.S. export controls to gain access to space capabilities which U.S. law prohibits Beijing from purchasing outright. Collaboration with foreign universities, including in the United States, is another important avenue in China’s drive to acquire space technology. Chinese students enrolled in foreign science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs are treated like employees of China’s defense industrial base, with defense enterprises regularly funding their studies in return for service commitments following graduation.
  • China views space as a critical U.S. military and economic vulnerability, and has fielded an array of direct-ascent, cyber, electromagnetic, and co-orbital counterspace weapons capable of targeting nearly every class of U.S. space asset. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also developed doctrinal concept, for the use of these weapons encouraging escalatory attacks against an adversary’s space systems early in a conflict, threatening to destabilize the space domain. It may be difficult for the United States to deter Beijing from using these weapons due to China’s belief the United States has a greater vulnerability in space.

Recommendations

  • Congress direct the National Space Council to develop a strategy to ensure the United States remains the preeminent space power in the face of growing competition from China and Russia, including the production of an unclassified report with a classified annex including the following:
    • A long-term economic space resource policy strategy, including an assessment of the viability of extraction of space-based precious minerals, onsite exploitation of space-based natural resources, and space-based solar power. It would also include a comparative assessment of China’s programs related to these issues.
    • An assessment of U.S. strategic interests in or relating to cislunar space.
    • An assessment of the U.S. Department of Defense’s current ability to guarantee the protection of commercial communications and navigation in space from China’s growing counterspace capabilities, and any actions required to improve this capability.
    • A plan to create a space commodities exchange to ensure the United States drives the creation of international standards for interoperable commercial space capabilities.
    • A plan to streamline and strengthen U.S. cooperation with allies and partners in space.
    • An interagency strategy to defend U.S. supply chains and manufacturing capacity critical to competitiveness in space.
  • Congress direct the U.S. Department of Defense to take the following steps to ensure it is prepared to counter China’s and Russia’s destabilizing approach to military operations in space:
    • Ensure U.S. Space Command and any future space-oriented service are responsible for protecting freedom of navigation and keeping lines of communication open, safe, and secure in the space domain, as the U.S. Navy does for U.S. interests in the maritime commons.
    • Strengthen the credibility of U.S. deterrence in space by fully integrating the space domain into policy, training, and exercises.
    • Ensure that programs designed to increase survivability, redundancy, reusability, resilience, rapid replacement, and disaggregation of critical U.S. space assets receive continued support, including those programs ordered in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019 Title XVI, Subtitle A.
  • Congress urge the Administration to actively participate in international space governance institutions to shape their development in a way that suits the interests of the United States and its allies and partners and to strengthen U.S. engagement with key coalitional allies and partners in the space domain.

Introduction

At the highest levels of policy, the Chinese government is determined to meet ambitious goals for space leadership, and it has connected its space program with its broader ambitions to become a terrestrial leader in political, economic, and military power.

Beijing aims to establish a leading position in the future space-based economy and capture important sectors of the global commercial space industry through the use of subsidies to undercut foreign competitors, including promoting its space industry through partnerships under what it has termed the “Space Silk Road.” Some of these initiatives are already challenging the U.S. space industry and U.S. leadership on international space cooperation.

Beijing has also positioned itself to take advantage of the unclear legal regimes concerning the exploitation of space-based resources, while making statements linking its space exploration program to its sovereignty claims on Earth. Despite its insistence that it opposes the militarization of space, Beijing has fielded an array of counterspace capabilities enabling it to hold both civilian and military space assets at risk.

The PLA has developed doctrinal concepts for the use of these weapons early in a conflict, threatening to destabilize the space domain. Although the strategic value of some elements of China’s space program is not yet proven, Beijing is clearly of the view that the country that leads in space may also be economically and militarily dominant on Earth.

This section examines Beijing’s plans for economic and industrial expansion into space; its use of international space cooperation to promote its geopolitical interests; the application of military-civil fusion to China’s nascent commercial space sector; and China’s counterspace activities, capabilities, and doctrine. It draws from the Commission’s April 2019 hearing on China’s space ambitions, open source research and analysis, and consultations with outside experts.

National Rejuvenation and a “Space Dream”

China views establishing a leading position in the economic and military use of outer space as a core component of its goal to realize the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” or the “China dream”—an ambitious vision to restore what Beijing views as its historical leadership role in world affairs.

According to General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping, China’s “space dream” is to “explore the vast universe, develop aerospace enterprises, and build a strong aerospace country.” To achieve these goals and become what it has termed a “space power in all respects,” China has made focused efforts to catch up to and eventually surpass other spacefaring countries in terms of space-related industry, technology, diplomacy, and military power.

Beijing consistently invests high levels of funding and political will to its space program, with both the civilian government and military involved in formulating and executing policy at the highest level. China’s program is deeply connected to the “levers of power,” meaning its goals often draw support from top leaders and are interconnected with the overall priorities of China’s industrial and foreign policies.

Furthermore, many officials with backgrounds in the state defense complex have moved to senior government positions. While not all of these officials have backgrounds in space specifically, the result of these moves has been that senior Chinese political leaders often have a stronger technical understanding of the space sector than their foreign counterparts (see Addendum I on page 385 listing key Chinese officials with aerospace sector backgrounds).

Beijing has set ambitious goals for its space program and demonstrated its ability to achieve an increasingly sophisticated set of milestones. For example, if plans hold to launch its first long-term space station module in 2020, China will have matched the United States’ nearly 40-year progression from first human spaceflight to first space station module in less than 20 years.