Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from a new report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research. The full report, entitled “U.S.-China Relations in Strategic Domains,” is available online.
With the end of the Cold War, outer space activities lost much of their urgency and hipness. But today space is back, and more important than ever. Modern militaries and the global economy are dependent on space capabilities. Private companies are daring to take on challenges that were once the domain of superpowers. And in national security circles, there is discussion of a renewed strategic competition in space that could pit the winner of the last space race, the United States, against the rising power of China.
The United States and China have identified space as a strategic domain that is critical to their national interests and development. Both nations are dedicating considerable resources to developing their civil, military, and commercial space sectors. Beijing and Washington see their space accomplishments as important to boosting national pride and international prestige. Over time, what happens in space could serve as either a source of instability, or a means of strengthening the U.S.-China relationship.
The United States and China have differing goals and priorities in space. The United States is focused on assuring continued access to space and sees it as a critical domain to its security and prosperity. Space-based capabilities and services provide the foundation for U.S. national security, enabling communications with U.S. strategic forces, allowing the verification and monitoring of arms control treaties, forming the cornerstone of the United States’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, and serving as essential enablers for the United States’ ability to defend its borders, project power to protect its allies and interests overseas, and defeat adversaries. Space capabilities are also a critical piece of the U.S. — and the global — economy.
China is focused on developing its own capabilities in the space domain, and increasingly depends on space-based assets for both economic and military aims that may be partly incompatible, and even in competition, with other key players, especially the United States. China sees space as critical to defending its national security and securing its role as a rising power. From China’s perspective, the most urgent problem is that the space capability gap between the United States and China is growing. China also seeks a voice in the creation of international norms and institutions — particularly because it perceives that it must accept rules that have been decided mainly by the United States.
As the two nations act on these differing priorities and goals, tensions in the space domain have had ramifications for the overall bilateral relationship. Recent testing and development of anti-satellite capabilities by China, and a doctrinal focus on “active defense” have caused the United States to openly call for a stronger focus on space protection and warfighting. From the Chinese perspective, it is necessary to develop such capabilities to support national security, close the power gap, and defend itself from American aggression.,
Failure to reconcile their differences in this domain could lead to a renewed arms race that could be to the detriment of both sides. Both countries have acknowledged the importance of developing a more stable, cooperative, and long-lasting bilateral relationship in space. Washington still hopes that Beijing can be a constructive partner for greater international space security. While China still chafes at the largely American constructed rules-based order, it likewise has a clear interest in using its development of space capabilities to promote bilateral cooperation and to play a role the formation of new international regimes. Both of these dynamics were evident in recent United Nations discussions on space governance, with an isolated Russia attempting to undermine international consensus on new guidelines for enhancing the long-term sustainability of space activities.
Thus, the two sides have overlapping interests that present opportunities for cooperation and bilateral engagement. Accordingly, the United States and China should continue to engage in both bilateral and multilateral initiatives that enhance the long-term sustainability and security of space. Working together, and with other stakeholders, to help ensure the success of these initiatives would go a long way toward reinforcing the desire of both countries to be seen as playing leading roles in space governance and being responsible space powers. The United States and China, as well as the private sectors of the two countries, should also find a way to engage in bilateral and multilateral civil space projects, including science and human exploration, though doing so will need to overcome strong political challenges.
At the same time, both the United States and China should be cognizant of where their interests differ in space and look to enact confidence-building measures to reduce tensions and the risk of a crisis escalating into outright conflict. While the prospects for legally binding arms control measures are slim at this stage, they could put in place unilateral and bilateral measures to reduce tensions and development of direct ascent kinetic-kill and rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) capabilities. Finally, both countries would benefit significantly from improving their national space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities, and increasing data sharing with each other and the spacefaring community.
Brian Weeden is the Technical Adviser at the Secure World Foundation in Washington, D.C. Xiao He is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economics and Politics in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
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