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The Whisker and the Fang: A Darker Side of China’s Two-Faced Posture in Outer Space

Henry Choisser

“The mission of China's space program is: to explore outer space to expand humanity's understanding of the earth and the cosmos; to facilitate global consensus on our shared responsibility in utilizing outer space for peaceful purposes and safeguarding its security for the benefit of all humanity; to meet the demands of economic, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to raise the scientific and cultural levels of the Chinese people, protect China's national rights and interests, and build up its overall strength.”

- Mission statement of the 2021 White Paper

Principles: China's space industry is subject to and serves the overall national strategy. China adheres to the principles of innovation-driven, coordinated, efficient, and peaceful progress based on cooperation and sharing to ensure a high-quality space industry.”

 - Principles statement of the 2021 White Paper

With the recent publication of China’s 5-year White Paper on Space Activities, it is worth taking a closer look at the policies, rhetoric, and actions of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) space program as a whole - and more specifically, the blatant omission of any security dimensions regarding orbital activities. Before discussing the contents and limitations of the White Paper, a few aspects of the Chinese space sector should be clarified. Although the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA, a Chinese analogue to NASA) largely follows the ideals in the document’s preamble: that “China upholds the principle of exploration and utilization of outer space for peaceful purposes”, the other primary actors in their national space program do not. 

The two actors in question are the China Manned Space Agency (which deals with all crewed missions) and the Strategic Support force (which was established as its own branch of the military in 2015 to coordinate all space and cyberwarfare operations), both of which fall into the command structure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Pointedly, the White Paper never mentions the CNSA as the focus of the document (or at all), and presumably is meant to examine the breadth of Chinese space activities. We can reasonably make this assumption due to the mention of both manned operations in the construction of the Tiangong space station and the historical development of missile technology, both of which fall outside the scope of the CNSA. 

It is with this assumption in mind that the first concerning omissions become apparent. Despite acknowledging in the White Paper, that part of “[t]he mission of China's space program is… to meet the demands… of national security and social progress” in order to “protect China’s national rights and interests, and build up its overall strength”, the publication is largely quiet on recent activities related to these issues. To name a few developments with significant security implications conveniently forgotten by the State Council Information Office of the PRC: 

(1) Although the 2016 launch of the Micius quantum encrypted satellite and a number of its experiments were mentioned, the implications of “entanglement-based secure quantum cryptography” for establishing undecryptable and non-interceptable communications networks are overlooked. 

(2) In July and August of 2021, China successfully tested dual payload (nuclear or kinetic) hypersonic glide vehicles that are capable of fractional orbital bombardment and aerodynamic maneuvers after re-entry at speeds of over 3,900mph

(3) Unlike the 2016 White Paper, which made note of “plans to build in-orbit servicing and maintenance systems for spacecraft” (otherwise known as Rendezvous and Proximity Operations [RPO]). The most recent publication refused to even mention the Shijian-21 satellite or RPO activities in general, despite its deployment in 2020 and successful mission in Dec. 2021 to move a defunct Beidou satellite into a graveyard orbit. Demonstrating a technological capability that could theoretically pose a threat to any other satellite in orbit.

These omissions coupled with a conscious effort to mirror the idealistic language used in international agreements, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) and annual UN resolutions on the peaceful uses of outer space, belies the fact that the White Paper is in essence a PR document. It is designed to be a window into China’s model home of space activities, thereby advertising their scientific contributions to space exploration in order to attract international cooperation, all while overtly ignoring the more militaristic dimensions of the Chinese space program and their overall ambitions in orbit. This aversion to discussing security issues is so strong that it even prevents them from promoting their flagship treaty barring first placement of weapons in outer space, known as the PPWT, which China and Russia have been pushing in the UN Committee on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) since 2008.

The PPWT is in and of itself a flawed document and it reflects the coy nature of China’s claim “to advocate sound and efficient governance of outer space”. Although it frames itself as limiting arms competition in the space environment, the PPWT only prohibits the placement of weapons systems in space but is silent on terrestrial counterspace capabilities such as ASAT’s and laser systems. Moreover, it delays verification mechanisms for future discussions. In all, the PPWT attempts to circumvent advantages that the U.S. possess as the dominant space power by preserving their capabilities to neutralize space based assets in America’s arsenal.

Despite claiming to work “under the framework of the United Nations, [in order to] actively participate in formulating international rules regarding outer space” no such progress is cited outside of regional bodies where China wields a dominant influence. China’s policy of “supporting the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) to play an important role [in rules formation] … and [working] within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization” are clear deviations from the UN framework. Likewise, “strengthening international space cooperation that is based on common goals and serves the Belt and Road Initiative” has no bearing on broader concerns of governance at a global scale. It only reaffirms China’s intention to build a sphere of influence, through a coalition of the indebted, that is willing to acquiesce to the PRC’s vision of a fragmented international space order. A situation wherein China can pursue its ambition to become a dominant space power, to the extent that its geopolitical decisions will go unchallenged (in a meaningful way) due to China's increasingly sufficient deterrent capacity. This comes from the belief held by Chinese military planners that any U.S. capability to project force into the Western Pacific depends on its space assets, and that the ability to neutralize or deny these assets would deter America from future military intervention. 

The PRC has been reluctant to formalize a national space law, having first promised to release a comprehensive space law in 2013, and pledging to release such a law every year since then. In this absence, the space industry is subject to a smattering of national policies that guide its role in the overall national strategy. The most relevant of these being the national policy of Military Civil Fusion (MCF). This policy essentially seeks to blend the R&D and manufacturing capabilities of the Chinese civil economy with the military organs of the state by making certain ostensibly independent entities subservient to the national security apparatus of the PLA. In 2015, President Xi Jinping made the “aligning of civil and defense technology development” a national priority, and in 2017, Beijing created the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development as the principal entity for overseeing MCF. 

The goal of this policy is to harness entrepreneurial innovation in order to mature domestic supply chains for military manufacturing and to achieve technological independence in critical sectors (such as space), while simultaneously diffusing the means of technological acquisition outside of traditional and perceptibly military entities. It is in this sense, as stated in the principles declaration of the White Paper, that the Chinese space program “is subject to and serves the overall national strategy”, wherein even academic institutions and some “private” companies are employed to provide cover for technology transfers and to circumvent export bans for the PLA. At the root of this problem is the “dual use conundrum”, which is shorthand to describe the many ways that technologies developed for non-military purposes can be retooled, or “spun-on” for new military innovation. For example, there is a direct correlation between the technology necessary to have a multi-satellite release mechanism and the development of a Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) nuclear warhead. It was best put by the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Ford: “it is very difficult and in many cases impossible to engage with China’s high-technology sector in a way that does not entangle a foreign entity in supporting ongoing Chinese efforts to develop or otherwise acquire cutting-edge technological capacities for China’s armed forces.” 

It is with everything we have discussed in mind that it becomes necessary to reevaluate the 2021 White Paper on Space Activities. The document seeks to highlight the noteworthy achievements of the Chinese national space program while framing its progress in a way that obscures the more devious elements of its role in the national security agenda. In the same way that the lack of a national space law provides ambiguity for covertly militaristic corporate and academic technological partnerships to occur, the White Paper acts as a facade which these entities can use to lure future collaboration. The exclusion of security related topics from the White Paper is therefore no accident, but rather a strategy designed to provide a false sense of amicability to the overall ambitions of the Chinese space program. Ambitions which ultimately come full circle to China’s national objective to achieve regional hegemony, export their technocratic security-state model, and sufficient deterrence to forestall any attempts to interfere with their ethnocentric domestic policies and coercive international partnerships.

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