Badly managed, China’s rising clout in orbit could trigger an arms race in space
At a time when Donald Trump wants tougher screening at the US border – an endeavour in which he has had some success this week – the country's vetting policies are making unlikely victims. In late March, Guobin Yu, a top-ranking Chinese scientist, was due to attend the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas to discuss China’s plans to explore the Moon and Mars. Yet his plans were grounded after the US embassy in Beijing denied him a visa, forcing the symposium’s organisers to scramble for a replacement speaker.
It is not clear what reasons the US embassy gave to explain its move, if any at all. But the rebuff is further sign that America is growing warier of China’s progress in space.
Over the last few years, Washington has become increasingly concerned that its space capabilities, on which its security and economy depends more than that of its peers, could become vulnerable to attacks. The US government owns nearly a quarter of all currently active satellites; these enable communications with its nuclear and strategic forces, the mobilisation of its intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities, and the use of precision-guided weapons. Its Global Positioning System contributes a yearly $70bn to the country’s economy, with trillions more derived from information satellites provide on the likes of crop management and banking.
Washington is thus particularly riled by Chinese efforts to develop anti-satellite weapon systems (ASAT). Evidence suggests China has conducted at least seven tests of kinetic-kill capabilities, where an inert projectile circling the Earth at high speed destroys a target by bumping into it. At least one such attempt is thought to have happened in geostationary orbit, a high-altitude region where many US intelligence and missile early-warning satellites reside. Reports also suggest China’s Aolong-1 spacecraft, launched in 2016 and equipped with a robotic arm, could also be used as an ASAT weapon (Beijing claims its task is to clean up space junk).
The US has responded by adopting a more aggressive posture: in 2015, it created bodies responsible for instilling a warfighting culture within its space community and experimenting with future conflict scenarios. Following a strategic review, it has also pledged to spend up to $8bn through 2020 on space protection. And it is also opposed to China’s main proposal on space security, the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, on the grounds that it would ban American space-based defenses but not the ground- or air-based ASAT capabilities China is currently developing.
Such signals are only convincing Beijing to work harder on bolstering its own offensive muscle. Despite ranking among the world’s top-tier space powers, China still lags behind the US by several decades, says Kevin Pollpeter of CNA, a research outfit. Its perception is that the US is doing all it can to maintain this dominance, with the result that the capability gap continues to grow. Beijing is worried that America’s hegemony in space will reach a point where it allows Washington to weaken China’s nuclear deterrent and threaten its foreign policy interests, for example regarding Taiwan or the South China Sea. It reckons ASAT capabilities must be built fast if they are to be effective deterrents, and is willing to take advantage of the US’ negative attitude towards space agreements to press ahead.
China is unlikely to directly challenge US assets in the near future, and both countries have much to lose from a security crisis. But the mutual mistrust is setting the stage for an arms race in space. “If you mean the standard offense/defense back-and-forth that we see in conventional weapons, I think that's probably inevitable to some degree,” says Brian Weeden, technical advisor at the Secure World Foundation.
Should offensive counter-space strategies be granted a chapter in the two nation’s respective military doctrines, the urge to strike first could create much instability. Greater transparency on space policies and activities could help defuse tensions: a recent push to share Space Situational Awareness data – information on the location of natural and manmade objects in orbit – between US and Chinese agencies is a step forward. But the taste for secrecy that prevails in national security circles is likely to hinder more comprehensive efforts.
Perhaps the best hope lies in collaborations in non-strategic space domains, like commercial launches or human spaceflight. But such opportunities are limited. A decade-long partnership that saw dozens of American satellites launched on Chinese rockets ended in 1999, when allegations of technology theft that could also help ballistic missiles led the US to impose drastic export controls on all space-related equipment. Would-be sellers have since needed a license from the State Department, “equivalent to if you were exporting a tank,” says Weeden. Since 2011, NASA scientists are also banned from working bilaterally with China, ostensibly due to security concerns. John Culberson, chair of the Congress committee that gives the agency its money, has vowed to “keep the Red Chinese out of our spaceprogram”.
More pragmatic observers also have doubts: “Given China’s clear cyber espionage capabilities, cooperating with the People’s Republic is fraught with risk, and not just in space-related technologies,” says Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Ironically, the US is finding itself increasingly isolated in its stance towards China’s space program. Beijing, which intends to have its first space station up and running by 2022, has received the UN’s formal blessing for opening up the project to countries that lack access to space. It has installed ground control systems in South Africa, developed earth reconnaissance programs alongside Brazil and launched satellites for nations ranging from Belarus to Bolivia.
Importantly, Europe is accelerating efforts to cooperate with Beijing. In 2015, the European Space Agency granted China the status of “strategic partner”, alongside the US and Russia. Last year, both parties launched the fourth phase of the Dragon program, which sees about 650 scientists from European and Chinese institutes use Earth observation data to manage risks like floods and earthquakes. The ESA’s head, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, has floated the idea of a multinational “Moon Village” and vowed to send European astronauts to China’s future space station. Sources close to the agency suggests the momentum for collaboration is unlikely to ebb.
Rapprochements between Beijing and Brussels haven’t attracted the ire of Washington so far, partly because there are still few non-strategic areas where the US and China are genuine competitors. That could change in the coming years. Trump memos have raised the possibility that the US could seek to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020, just as China gears up its own preparations for a manned lunar mission. Washington could sulk at Europe’s strengthened ties with Beijing should the two collaborate on moon-related projects, which may well happen if NASA proves an ever more difficult partner.
Visiting China last year, Mr Woerner called the international community to embrace a “space without borders”. For Mr Trump, who shows little taste for all things borderless, that probably sounds like a flight of fancy.