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The New Frontier: The rise of China as a Space Power and the Threat to U.S Dominance.

We are currently enmeshed in a Second Cold War. Unlike the original one, the ideological battle between democracy and authoritarianism is leading to growing tension between the United States and China. While the two countries fight to procure economic, technological, geopolitical and even ideological superiority on the Earthly realm; space has become the natural extension of their great power competition. The US-China competition over space entered a new phase last week when China launched its first crew of three astronauts to the country’s still-under-construction Tiangong Space Station (TSS). This crowning achievement sends a clear signal both at home and abroad: China is becoming a serious contender in the domain of space exploration, rivalling the scientific prowess of the West.

Tiangong Space Station
Impression of the Chinese Space Station by the artist Penyulap

According to the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, self-reliance (dependence on one’s own capacity) is key to China’s space progress to exert its influence as an emerging space power. Taking into consideration the U.S.’ recent attempts to block China’s involvement in US-led space cooperation by restricting Chinese scientists from engaging with NASA or barring the country's astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS), the Chinese leader’s sentiments become clear. With almost no direct links between the two countries in the fields of space technology research, development, and operations; the exclusion has enabled China’s self-reliance to extend its influence into the skies by landing a rover on the far side of the Moon in 2019. This major feat makes China the only country besides the US to put a functioning rover on Mars. The latest milestone in China’s ambitious space programme is without a doubt a direct result of this exclusion.

Inadvertently, by blocking China from collaborations in space, Washington is driving Beijing to the evolution of a Chinese-led space order. This separation between the U.S. and Chinese space programmes, could in fact cost the U.S. an opportunity to reduce the risk of conflict. While the US is currently ahead in technologies such as reusable launch systems and satellite manufacturing; China has the potential to narrow the gap. This becomes evident when one considers that China’s space programme is receiving great political and monetary support from the ruling Communist Party, which relies on its success to preserve its domestic legitimacy.

It is evident that the milestone of the TSS presents a threat to the current space order. Especially considering that the ISS is scheduled - unless extended to be decommissioned in 2024 - making it the only crewed outpost in orbit. Additionally, Russia is now in discussions with China about crewed flights to the Chinese space station and is planning to pull out of the ISS partnership after 2024. Sino-Russian space cooperation is becoming increasingly possible and poses a potential threat to the current U.S. space dominance.

With relations between China and the U.S. deteriorating to their lowest level in years, it is becoming a matter of increasing concern that China may leverage its space breakthroughs to contribute to its military development. As China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plans to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space; the threat of direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles targeting the U.S. and allied nations in low-Earth-orbit becomes increasingly alarming. The PLA could be further enabled to conduct multi-domain operations (MDOs) as a more modern, high-intensity network warfare, and use space for the functioning of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD systems).


Echoing the early concerns of the Soviet Union on American space dominance, China is building up its capacities. While future potential counter-space operations will be integral to preserve space systems, in order to de-escalate current tensions, the U.S. must pursue cooperation with China by prioritising enhanced space engagement and coordination. If the US wants to maintain its international leadership on space, then less separation is required. Given that China does not pose an immediate threat in this domain - since its main objective to exert soft power - Sino-U.S. cooperation is desirable as it could improve ties as it did for the U.S. and Russia. Increased cooperation would de-escalate an emerging Sino-Russian axis in space and serve as a bargaining chip to help sustain other areas of cooperation. A mechanism based on mutual understanding and confidence-building measures - reminiscent of the U.S.’ negotiations with the former Soviet Union regarding strategic weapons in space - needs to be adopted with China and other emerging space powers like India. This would maintain the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty and help preserve space as a common ground where any one state or company can operate safely to enjoy its benefits.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are personal to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organisation or employer.

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On the panel, Andrei I. Cursaru (Chief Executive, Centre for Youth and International Studies) George Mullens (Young Humanitarians Host).

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This episode of CYIS Now has been recorded in collaboration with Young Humanitarians.

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Date of recording: 26 May 2021


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