China In Space: Does the US Contest Or Cooperate?


•In an April 2020 Brookings Institution Report entitled “Managing China’s Rise In Outer Space” (see Brookings Report here), author Frank Rose asserts that “The United States faces a fundamental dilemma as it attempts to effectively manage China’s rise as a major actor in outer space.” The U.S. must find a balance between countering China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons efforts and cooperating with China to address the key challenges facing the outer space environment, namely orbital debris and the rise of mega constellations.

• With over 120 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites in orbit, China is second only to the U.S. This includes 14 Gaofen satellites, China’s most advanced class of high resolution imagery satellites launched since July 2018. China also operates 34 communication satellites, four of which are dedicated exclusively for the military. China’s BeiDou ‘precision, navigation, and timing’ system (similar to the U.S.’s GPS system) will this year reach its goal of global coverage. The report notes that this will lessen China’s dependence on our GPS system, making it less vulnerable to U.S. interference, especially “during a crisis”.

• In the Brookings Report, Rose, who was Assistant Secretary for Arms Control in the Obama State Department, says that the US must live with the fact that China will be a peer in space, both militarily and in the civil and commercial spheres. While the U.S. needs to deter China’s growing ASAT capabilities, it also must also boost languishing diplomatic relations with Beijing on space issues. Rose accuses Trump of failing to continue the “robust period of dialogue during the Obama administration.” The bilateral US-China dialogue on space security has been largely neglected in the Trump administration,” the report says. The only inroads that Trump has pursued with China have been over the legal status of commercial mining of the Moon and asteroids.

• Rose believes a diplomatic strategy should include: deterrence against Chinese anti-satellite weaponry; reinvigorating bilateral dialogue on space security and civil policies; developing norms of behavior for outer space; and overcoming Congressional limitations on cooperative civil space projects with China.

• A recent study by the Secure World Foundation (see SWF study, “Global Counterspace Capabilities”, here) stated that China’s premier SC-19 mobile-launched ballistic missile can destroy “low earth orbit” satellites up to 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles) in altitude – the altitude of most “observation” satellites.

• Another March study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (see CSIS study, “Space Threat Assessment 2020”, here) says that China has already started training specialized units of the Strategic Space Force in the use of “direct-ascent kinetic” anti-satellite weaponry. The studies found open-source evidence of a variety of Chinese efforts to develop counterspace-related technology from radio-frequency jamming to lasers for blinding satellites to ground-based missiles to on-orbit ‘killer satellite’ techniques.

[Editor’s Note]  In a a recent ExoArticle (see “The Truth Behind Russia’s Mystery ASAT Launch – ‘Not Operational’” here), director of the ‘Russian Nuclear Forces Project’ and senior research fellow at the ‘United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’, Pavel Podvig pointed out that the Russian anti-satellite ‘Nudol’ interceptor can target satellites up to 1,240 miles in low earth orbit. Most U.S. spy satellites are in geostationary orbits of about 22,200 miles above the earth. “[I]t’s hard to imagine a military mission in which this capability would be useful,” said Podvig. The Chinese ASAT weapons mentioned here have a range of only about 2,000 kilometers (or 1,240 miles) as well.

Once again however, I fear that all of this hand-wringing over Chinese and Russian ground-to-space ballistic missiles being able to reach our low earth orbit ‘observation’ and GPS satellite constellation is a smokescreen hiding the real space race going on among the respective nation’s secret space programs.

Dr Michael Salla has just published a new book entitled Rise of the Red Dragon: Origins & Threat of China’s Secret Space Program (see here for book info) which looks behind the curtain of China’s secret space program. I reached out to Dr Salla to comment on the concerns and military threats that Frank Rose presents in the foregoing Brookings Institute Report.

“The threat posed by China’s expansion into space is far greater than it simply developing anti-satellite weapons systems to neutralize the US military’s extensive satellite grid,” said Dr Salla. “China has been developing a secret space program with electromagnetic propulsion and weapons systems that have been developed through the acquisition of foreign technologies gained through espionage and corporate theft. Perhaps even more significant has been China’s secretive reverse-engineering programs of off-world technologies. These advanced space technologies are being enhanced through China’s unrestrained adoption of Artificial Intelligence for communications and control systems. China is devoting significant resources into the expansion of its secret space program as part of the asymmetric “Assassin’s Mace” strategy of countering US hegemony on Earth and in space.”

“The long term strategy of China’s ruling Communist Party is to exceed US space capabilities by 2030, and it will exploit the vagaries of international law and space law to advance its hegemonic aspirations. There needs to be full disclosure of the capabilities and technologies all major space powers to prevent a future Space Pearl Harbor as China expands its military presence in space.”