Russia and China Playing Musical Chairs in Zero Gravity
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a series on Sino-Russian defense cooperation organized by the Center for a New American Security. Be sure to read to the first, second, third, and fourth articles in the series.
As SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket hurled the Dragon capsule and its two astronauts into orbit, marking the first human spaceflight from U.S. soil since 2011 and the first ever for a commercial company, Russia saw its monopoly on putting humans in space fade rapidly into the background. Coupled with the return of human spaceflight to the United States, China continues its march toward its own sustained human spaceflight with its Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket and new spacecraft initiative. Russia, who is unique in having close ties to both U.S. and Chinese space programs, stands at a crossroads. Russia can seek greater cooperation in space with China and risk losing technology, or risk losing any benefit it could gain from greater cooperation and still watch China pull ahead. Regardless of the trajectory the Sino-Russian relationship takes, there are significant implications for U.S. national security.
Russia and China currently cooperate in space for material benefit, broader strategic foreign policy goals, and potential military benefits. However, their space cooperation, just like defense cooperation, is constrained by a level of mistrust, the need to protect defense-related technologies, and disparities in economic strength and priorities.
That being said, both countries are united in their efforts to counter what they view as America’s growing military capabilities in space. Both countries are especially worried over U.S. space-based capabilities that enhance ballistic missile defense. This perceived shared threat could lead to greater cooperation in counter-space capability. American defense planners need to not overinflate the threat of Russian-Chinese cooperation, but still understand and plan for those areas where their combined efforts might lead to new capabilities.
Material and Programmatic Benefits
Russia has historically valued cooperation in space in part to offset financial and other material requirements, and cooperation with China is no exception. For context, the Russian space program writ large has suffered from the economic downturn following the combination of a drop in crude oil prices in 2014, and the implementation of sanctions by the West in response to the seizure of Crimea and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine. Additionally, quality control issues led to a significant number of launch failures from 2010 to 2017. While many of the challenges Russia is facing in space can only be addressed through internal changes, Russia can benefit from cooperation with China through program cost sharing. Russia and China renewed their pledge to cooperate in space at the August 2017 meeting of the Russian-Chinese Subcommittee on Space Cooperation with the signing of a five-year agreement from 2018 to 2022. The most recent meeting of the subcommittee in 2019 reaffirmed their support for mutual initiatives for lunar and deep-space exploration, remote sensing, rocket engines and launch vehicles, and low-orbit satellite communications systems.
The space initiatives mentioned above could directly benefit either or both sides’ defense-related capabilities both on the ground and in space. Russian cooperation with China that leads to improvements in microelectronics could directly impact Russian military-related technology. For example, the recently announced initiative to create a multi-part interferometer — used in this case to obtain data on astrophysical phenomena, such as gravitational waves — could potentially provide secondary and tertiary advances in technology that could have military implications. Any military benefits, however, are subject to both sides’ reticence to share defense-related technologies and, for Russia, a concern over Chinese technology theft.
An interesting case study in potential material gain from Russian-Chinese space cooperation is the sharing of Russian rocket technology in exchange for Chinese advances in microelectronics. The Russian Federation has suffered in the field of microelectronics since the imposition of numerous Western sanctions targeting Russian dual-use technologies, forcing it to look to sources other than the West for high-tech items that are suitable for use in space, both in weight and shielding.
China has struggled to develop its own heavy-lift rockets, exhibited most recently by the March 16 failure of its new Long March 7A rocket. Given the inherent challenge of developing these systems, along with the possible impacts of sanctions related to U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, Beijing has signaled its willingness to exchange technology with Russia to gain access to Russian rocket technology, and while Russian space officials have suggested there was interest on the Kremlin’s part, the deal has yet to happen. This is in part due to Moscow’s longstanding concerns over Chinese reverse engineering of Russian rocket technology and the implications it could have for the military balance between the two countries. Another constraint is China’s own advancements in heavy-lift rocket design. Despite the recent rocket failure, there is little reason to believe that China will not eventually be successful with the Long March 7A, negating one of the motivations for the rocket-microelectronics exchange.
Strategic Foreign Policy Initiatives
In addition to any material benefits Russia and China may derive from space cooperation, a significant driver of their space programs, and defense cooperation in general, is to further their foreign policy goals as great powers. For Russia, space is intricately tied to a perception of great-power status that extends back to the Soviet Union. The Kremlin sees the current international system as antagonistic to the very idea of a strong Russia. Insofar as Russia’s prominent position among space-faring nations gives it a seat at that table, it will use this position to check what it perceives to be overreaching and hubris on the part of the United States.
Space also plays a role in the growing strategic ties between Russia and China. This burgeoning relationship is arguably driven by their mutual contempt for the United States as well as little opportunity for either country to cooperate with the United States in space. As two of the more developed space-faring nations, Russia and China find themselves in a position of an overlapping space policy that seeks to mitigate and compete with the United States. In an international system perceived to be led by one antagonistic power — the United States — competition in space by the two other competing powers has become mutually beneficial in reinforcing a narrative that offers an alternative to American dominance.
Reactions to U.S. Space Activities
Perhaps most concerning to U.S. policymakers is the potential for direct Russian-Chinese cooperation in the field of space-related military capabilities. Russian and Chinese strategists and policymakers see U.S. policies toward space largely as an attempt to achieve space dominance. In response, Russia and China have both developed programs for attacking and mitigating U.S. space-based capabilities and have sponsored joint Russian-Chinese maneuvers in international fora, such as the United Nations, to limit what they perceive to be Washington’s intent to weaponize space. In particular, both Russian and Chinese policymakers see U.S. space doctrine and space-based defense activities as enhancing U.S. conventional strike and, in particular, missile defense capabilities.
Ever since the U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, Russian policymakers have been apoplectic in their view that the United States is undermining strategic stability by gradually undermining the Russian nuclear deterrent via advances in long-range strike and missile defense. And Beijing seems to fear the same. During the Moscow Conference on International Security in 2017, the Chinese delegation delivered a nearly identical presentation on the destabilizing effect of U.S. missile defense capabilities as the presentation by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The logic is as follows: If current trends continue, American long-range missiles and missile defense could combine to make Russia’s nuclear arsenal so vulnerable that Washington might not be deterred in a future crisis.
U.S. space-based capabilities — those in use as well as potential future capabilities — enhance both long-range strike and missile defense. Space-based assets provide positioning, navigation, and timing information especially critical for targeting moving, fleeting targets at long ranges, such as Russia’s road-mobile nuclear force. With regards to missile defense, space-based assets make it possible to detect launches earlier in the process, which makes intercept of the missile — to include Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons — more achievable.
From both the Russian and Chinese perspectives, the enhancement of these capabilities and the possibility of the scenario described earlier are highly destabilizing and threatening, and is identified as an area of overlapping national security concern. One need not look much further than Russian President Putin’s March 2018 speech in which he showcased novel nuclear weapons, whose creation was specifically to curtail U.S. missile defense capabilities, and understand the fundamental and visceral role this fear plays in the Russian security psyche.
Defense planners need to look for indications that suggest Russia and China are moving toward cooperation in the counter-space field out of a growing fear of U.S. dominance in space, and what that could mean for both countries’ nuclear deterrent. It is difficult to say what that cooperation might look like, perhaps sharing an understanding of the U.S. space infrastructure and how it supports long-range strike and missile defense, for example.
The possibility of joint Russian-Chinese counter-space exercises should also not be discounted. Although both Russia and China highlight joint exercises and military cooperation, these exercises are generally for show and lack little interoperability. The same would likely be true of space-based defense cooperation. That being said, if both countries perceive the United States to be surging ahead in space-based military capabilities that threaten their core security interests, it is possible that cooperation could eventually be capability-enhancing.
An interesting recent development was Putin’s October 2018 announcement that Russia agreed to assist China with its early warning system. This cooperation, however, is arguably different than other types of cooperation and could lead to enhanced military capabilities and warrant concern from U.S. policymakers. Both Russian and U.S. nuclear security experts and policymakers have long viewed early warning capabilities, and nuclear weapon-related situational awareness in general, as a key to avoiding unintended escalation, crisis instability, and accidental war. The fact that the United States, Russia, and China value clarity in a crisis is especially important in a time of continued and growing tension.
The Russian and Chinese governments have initiated a number of joint space-related ventures ranging from remote sensing of the earth’s surface to human exploration in space. Yet, there is little direct defense-related space cooperation, although activities such as sharing rocket and microelectronic technology could certainly benefit each country’s military capabilities. The constraints on Russian-Chinese cooperation in space stem from an inherent distrust and skepticism over the ultimate trajectory of the relationship and other matters, such as Chinese technology theft. Should Russia increase cooperation with China, perhaps through sharing rocket and other technology, it could see Chinese space capabilities eventually eclipse Russia’s own programs and contribute to unwanted, expanded Chinese military capabilities. However, should Russia continue to be reticent, it may watch China move ahead without any of the benefits of greater cooperation. Regardless of which direction Russia takes, Sino-Russian cooperation in space should remain a significant concern for defense planners.
Jeffrey Edmonds is a research scientist with the Center for Naval Analyses. He previously served as Director for Russia on the National Security Council during the Obama Administration, detailed there from the Central Intelligence Agency.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defence