Renew Space Dialogue with China

us china space

In 2013, the United States needed to warn the People’s Republic of China about a potential satellite collision in low Earth orbit. Washington’s only way of doing so: sending a close approach notification to a fax number in China, which they hoped would be received, read, and acted upon in time to avoid disaster.

Fortunately, at the 2014 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the United States and China were able to discuss the problem and find a better solution: email. Things improved further the following year, with the two sides establishing a direct link for both sides to share information about potential satellite collisions. That success was followed by launch of the U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue in 2015 and two Space Security Exchanges chaired by the U.S. Department of State and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May and December of 2016. However, despite the increasing relevance of space to broader issues in the Sino-American relationship, neither group has met since 2017.



Renewing these space dialogues is an urgent priority because the stakes for strategic drift are catastrophic. Next time a potentially dangerous issue arises in space — and there will be a next time — in the absence of these regular points of contact, the two countries might not be so lucky. It’s thus high time to re-launch both the Civil Space Dialogue and the Space Security Exchange to prevent space accidents from inadvertently escalating into conflict.

Both the Civil Space Dialogue and the Space Security Exchange were born out of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the Obama administration’s flagship effort to engage China. The annual multi-day dialogue ran from 2008 to 2016, consisted of both economic and strategic dialogue tracks, and brought together American and Chinese heads of state and top policymakers from a wide range of departments across the U.S. and Chinese governments. And it was through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that the United States and China were able to move from the fax era into the age of email.

As a recent report on the Strategic and Economic Dialogue from the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the American Friends Service Committee shows, dialogue mechanisms like the Space Security Exchange and Civil Space Dialogue are key to managing the significant asymmetries in the relationship between the United States and China. The differences in the American and Chinese governance systems can easily create unintentional misunderstandings of both policy and intent. The substantive content of these dialogues can help reduce misperceptions and identify areas of potential cooperation, while consistent, repeated dialogues provide regular points of contact that can persist through the ups and downs inherent in Sino-American relations. With both sides seeking to put guardrails on the relationship, and with a tentative agreement to engage in dialogue on strategic issues, the Biden administration should propose — and Beijing should accept — a renewal of the U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue and Space Security Exchange. After years of silence, there is certainly a lot to talk about.

Military Uses of Space: Seizing the High Ground

China’s space security developments are long in the making. Beijing designated space as a new domain of warfare in its 2015 defense white paper, arguing that outer and cyber space had “become new commanding heights in strategic competition.” And as the Department of Defense’s 2021 report to Congress on China’s military and security developments highlights, space and counterspace operations are increasingly important for the People’s Liberation Army. Run out of the Strategic Support Force, the Space Systems Department is responsible for nearly all of China’s military operations in space, including launch, surveillance, and warfare. While many of their space capabilities are focused on command, control, and intelligence functions, others have more offensive aims. That includes the ground-based anti-satellite weapon demonstrated very publicly in 2007, which destroyed a Chinese weather satellite and created a massive space debris field that continues to endanger other objects in low-earth orbit.

The Financial Times’ 2021 reporting on a purported Chinese nuclear-capable hypersonic missile test — in which a platform launched from China circled the globe before diving to attack a target — fixed Washington’s attention on these emerging space-adjacent technologies and revived Cold War memories of similar Soviet systems as well as the nuclear arms race. While Chinese officials have denied the military applications of the test, hypersonic gliders like the DF-17 are hardly the only new technology in development. As the most recent report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence notes, Beijing is deeply involved in the development of space and counterspace capabilities, with such capabilities “intended to target U.S. and allied satellites” and “integral to potential military campaigns by the [People’s Liberation Army].”

Nor is China the only one with eyes fixed on the heavens. News reports claim that the United States is poised to unveil a previously secret space weapon. Key targets of this unveiling: policymakers in Moscow and Beijing. Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pushed for greater transparency around American military capabilities in space, arguing that “deterrence does not happen in the classified world.” But as with nuclear arms, deterrence and reassurance go hand in hand. And just as analysts have noted the need to avoid a nuclear arms race with China, the United States should seek to avoid sparking an arms race in space. A space arms race — particularly further testing of destructive anti-satellite weapons — puts the peaceful use of space at risk for the whole of humanity.

Space Issues Are Strategic Issues

Given both the U.S. and Chinese footprints in outer space, space issues are also strategic issues. And recent reports that the Chinese military is moving to a launch-on-warning footing for its nuclear forces makes a resumption of bilateral space security exchanges with China all the more urgent. As the 2021 Department of Defense report on Chinese capabilities notes, part of China’s early warning system to detect ballistic missile launches is space-based, as is the U.S. system. At the same time, the Department of Defense reports that Chinese experts focus on the need to “cripple or destroy the enemy’s information system … by making it blind, deaf or paralyzed.” Both the United States and China expect the other to target space-based assets, such as early-warning satellites, with just this goal in mind. This is a deadly combination. It would be all too easy for either side to interpret a satellite accident — either a collision with debris or a simple system failure — as an attempt to take out its early-warning network and thus the first strike in a potentially nuclear war.

At the time of the June 2021 Biden-Putin summit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian noted China’s willingness “to have bilateral dialogue with relevant sides with mutual respect and on an equal footing” on issues of strategic stability. The United States should take them up on their offer in a renewed Space Security Exchange.

The initial U.S.-China Space Security Exchanges, held in May and December of 2016, were led by the U.S. Department of State and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with additional participants from the Chinese Ministry of Defense and the China National Space Agency. Frank Rose, then assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, chaired the talks for the U.S. side, saying they were “a very good dialogue … a real discussion rather than just an exchange of talking points.” However, those dialogue processes lapsed after 2016 and have not been renewed.

Reviving the U.S.-China Space Security Exchange would bring bilateral discussions on space security in line with how Washington engages other countries on space issues — at present, the United States has over a dozen dialogues on space security with countries like Japan, India, and Russia. Moreover, a regular, repeated dialogue on space security issues would bring together U.S. and Chinese officials working on space security, establish common understandings of one another’s national policy, and allow them to build working relationships that could help defuse a crisis before it escalates.

Civil Space: It’s Getting Crowded Up Here 

But it’s not just the military use of space that Washington and Beijing need to discuss. Civilian space issues, too, are part of the geostrategic landscape. And with low Earth orbit getting increasingly crowded, both sides have issues that need to be addressed.

In 2021, China’s Tiangong space station twice had to maneuver to avoid colliding with StarLink satellites put into orbit by Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation. In response, China submitted a formal complaint through the United Nations, pointing to the responsibilities of all countries party to Outer Space Treaty. Ratified in 1967, the treaty bans nuclear weapons in space, establishes that space and celestial bodies will be freely explored for peaceful purposes, and precludes claims of sovereignty over non-Earth territories — though it does not go so far as to ban military activities in space. The treaty also states that countries are responsible for the actions of their nations’ commercial actors — and thus the United States is responsible for the actions of SpaceX.

This isn’t the first time SpaceX has been criticized for its behavior in outer space. And the problem is only going to grow more serious: The 2,000 StarLink satellites currently deployed are only a fraction of the planned total of 30,000 as part of SpaceX’s second-generation low Earth orbit broadband constellation. Of course, America’s SpaceX is not the only one interested in building massive satellite constellations. The newly-created state-owned (and independent of existing telecoms) China Satellite Network Group has been tasked with launching China’s own broadband satellite constellation, with plans for roughly 13,000 satellites. With so many satellites heading into low Earth orbit in the coming years, experts fear additional near-misses — or even collisions — between orbiting satellites.

Why the concern over satellite collisions? In a word, debris. Whether produced by an anti-satellite weapons test or an accidental collision, any collision in low Earth orbit creates additional orbiting space debris, which in turn increases the probability of additional collisions — and more debris. In the worst-case scenario, this could lead to a catastrophic cascade of collisions (“Kessler Syndrome”) of the type featured in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Academy Award-winning film Gravity. Such a cascade event would leave low Earth orbit an inhospitable place for human spaceflight. With the United States and China both launching thousands of satellites into orbit in the coming years, bilateral dialogue between the two will be critical to reining in the growth of space debris. A formal dialogue process such as the Civil Space Dialogue would provide officials on both sides an arena to identify critical problems, connect the appropriate authorities to one another, and address issues of common concern.

Making Space to Keep Outer Space an Open Space

Resuming the U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue is also an easier to bar to clear than other, broader forms of civil cooperation between the United States and China on space issues. One barrier to that cooperation is the Wolf amendment, which limits engagement with China on space issues. Named for former Rep. Frank Wolf, the language has been included in the annual appropriations bill since 2011 and puts a number of obstacles in front of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Space Council) for any efforts to coordinate or collaborate with China or any Chinese company. While not a ban on interactions with China on space issues, the amendment has certainly chilled past efforts at engaging China in these areas. The U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue, hosted by the U.S. Department of State, provided an easier path to get American and Chinese space experts in the same room (though officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were still required to submit advanced certification to Congress that the meeting would not violate the Wolf restrictions in order to participate in the dialogue).

Resuming a pair of dialogues might not seem like enough given the stakes and the scope of issues at hand. Space policy experts have proposed a range of potential policies for the United States to pursue, including a voluntary moratorium on anti-satellite weapons tests, legally binding agreements on space security as part of a broader space arms control agenda, and even a global ban on anti-satellite testing.

These proposals all have their merits. But the United States is a long way from engaging China in an arms control framework for space. At present, U.S.-Chinese relations are still in rough shape, with limited engagement on most issues. While officials from the Biden administration have stated their desire to engage China in discussions of nuclear arms control, the United States and China are not currently engaged in any such talks. Nor have the United States and China ever concluded a bilateral nuclear arms control agreement, though the United States has far more experience negotiating over nuclear weapons than on space arms control.

The U.S.-Chinese relationship also now lacks the overarching framework for discussion once provided by the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which, though oft maligned in Washington, D.C., produced many successful outcomes for the United States. If the United States and China cannot manage to sustain a basic level of dialogue on space issues, grander proposals — no matter their policy rigor — will never take off.

These two dialogue processes can also focus and motivate internal policy discussions in Washington and Beijing. As space experts have pointed out, one obstacle to the United States promoting a common set of space norms in its own behavior is that the United States itself does not have a shared understanding across agencies of what those norms should be. One of the conclusions from our investigation of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue was the role that the annual dialogue process served in forcing both sides — American and Chinese alike — to engage in interagency negotiations back home over issues of common concern.

A call for engagement and dialogue with China might seem quaint given the public funeral for the era of engagement. Yet the Biden administration has continued to seek a dialogue process with Beijing, as indicated by the repeated engagements between high-level U.S. officials and their Chinese counterparts and by President Joe Biden’s own direct dialogues with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Per Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the Biden administration’s approach to China is “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be” — a line oft repeated by administration officials. Space issues, both civil and security, are and will continue to be a mixture of collaboration and competition. But both the United States and China should engage with one another to ensure that that competition does not lead to space becoming an adversarial arena. Given the outstanding space issues in the Sino-American relationship, it’s time to re-launch both the Civil Space Dialogue and the Space Security Exchange.



Craig Kafura is the assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. He is one of the authors of “Engagement Revisited: Progress Made and Lessons Learned from the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue” from the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the American Friends Service Committee. Follow him on Twitter @ckafura.

Image: (Photo by NASA/Joel Kowsky)