China in Space: Implications for U.S. Military Strategy

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One who has few must prepare against the enemy. One who has many makes the enemy prepare against him.

--Sun Tzu (1)

China's January 11, 2007, launch of an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon against a low Earth orbit satellite heralded the end of a self-imposed 20-year period in which the United States and Russia had refrained from using destructive weapons in space. In addition to highlighting a growing capacity to limit the use of space by others, China's demonstration has generated demands for the United States to review its space policy and establish agreements to prevent the use of space for military purposes. (2) Others have called for the opposite: a renewed space race and the deployment of space-based weapons. One thing is clear, however: China's growing space capability has profound implications for U.S. military strategy and, ultimately, national policy.

China in Space

China has made great progress in its space program. Since 1984, it has come from having no geostationary satellites to launching Shenzhou VI for a 5-day orbit of the earth, (3) joining the ranks of Russia and the United States as the only nations with a manned space capability. (4)

China's January ASAT test was an ascending orbit shot. As the satellite passed overhead, the Chinese intercepted it. Launching a rocket at a satellite in low Earth orbit directly overhead is one thing; hitting a satellite in a high, geostationary orbit in another part of the sky is something else. In short, while China has made great progress, we must be careful to characterize the threat accurately. It is real. It is growing. But it is not all-powerful.

What would motivate China to pour resources into its space program instead of other challenges? China's space program is a source of national pride at a time when the Communist Party's performance is being criticized by a burgeoning Chinese middle class. However, pride is not the only driver. The space program provides a mechanism for research and scientific exploration that will undoubtedly advance China's education and high-tech industrial base much as the Apollo program did in the United States. (5)

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In addition to economic development, China's space program will likely become a political bargaining chip in negotiations with the West. (6) Advances in the ASAT program could be used to trade against concessions on other issues of importance to Beijing. Political benefit is not limited to East-West negotiations. In March 2006, seven countries (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, and Thailand) were granted access to Chinese weather and Earth resources satellites, including training of ground station operators. Such a move to provide partners in regions of interest is reminiscent of the U.S. approach to sharing its satellite resources with its friends. (7) In sum, China's space program has graduated from a research and development tool to one of diplomacy.

Implications for the United States

Beijing's entry into the ASAT club has numerous implications for Washington. First, China's successful launch is a not-so-subtle message to the United States and other powers of its capacity for denying space to those who rely on it for commerce, intelligence, and communications. Numerous open sources have illustrated Chinese military thinkers' recognition of American reliance on technology and the need to counter the U.S. space-based infrastructure. (8) Additionally, China's ability to hit space-based targets speaks to a growing technological sophistication that could be translated to other weapons and serves as an overt demonstration of China's desire to dominate its battlespace.

Then there is the practical matter of China adding to the "space junk" problem. The ASAT test created approximately 2 million pieces of space debris (adding to 140 million already estimated to be in orbit). …