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Foreign Policy

Sino-US Competition and Cooperation in Outer Space

Jul 09 , 2014
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

Early this June, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report entitled Pathways to Exploration— Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, advocating the inclusion of China in international space collaboration. Indeed, as an increasingly important domain of the global commons, outer space is experiencing growing interests of both the United States and China. Despite various areas of competition, the two countries may still find many benefits in space cooperation. To overcome the obstacles, this article attempts to propose some approaches to effective cooperation.

With the advent of the 21st century, the strategic significance of outer space has been elevated. It has been a strategic choice for major powers to advance space technologies, build up space power, and compete for advantageous positions in space. However, with the increase of emerging space-faring countries and commercial entities, there are more spacecraft, less orbit and electromagnetic spectrum resources, and more space debris. Additionally, space arms control is encountering many difficulties. Development, competition, cooperation and confrontation are coexisting and interweaving in outer space.

Reaching for the stars is one of China’s dreams in order to catch up with other powers and realize the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Scientifically, the advancement of space technologies can help boost innovations in material science, systems engineering, and other relevant areas. Politically, space exchanges and cooperation with other countries can provide a new stage to present national prestige and exert international influence. For the United States, space assets are indispensable to economic prosperity and national security. Economically, certain technologies can guarantee smooth commercial and financial activities such as global communications, GPS, navigation and timing (PNT), environmental monitoring, etc. Militarily, space capabilities have proven to be a significant force multiplier when integrated into military operations.

Unfortunately, there is competition between China and the U.S. in outer space at the legal, military and diplomatic levels. At the legal level, negotiation and bargaining on the establishment of an international code of conduct to govern behavior in space is now the focus of Sino-U.S. competition. In February 2008, China and Russia proposed a draft “Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects” (PPWT). The EU has also put forward three versions of a code of conduct for behavior in space. For fear of restrictions and concessions on military uses of space, the U.S. has refused to accept both the EU and the China-Russia versions. At the military level, control and the ability to counter control space will be the key to future Sino-U.S. confrontation. In the 14 versions of U.S. DoD annual reports on China’s military strength, the U.S. DoD has maintained consistent concern over the PLA’s space and counter-space capabilities. As mentioned in the Joint Publication 3-14 Space Operations released on May 29, 2013, the U.S. has decided to negate adversary space capabilities through deception, disruption, denial, degradation, or destruction, thus targeting an adversary’s space-related capabilities and forces by use of both lethal and nonlethal means. At the diplomatic level, winning international support is the hot point of Sino-U.S. competition. Due to U.S. obstruction, China now can only have limited international exchanges and cooperation on space technologies and activities.

Nevertheless, both China and the U.S. can gain benefits from space cooperation. For example, joint promotion of establishing a fair and reasonable space code of conduct can guarantee the peaceful, stable and sustainable development of outer space. Both countries should join hands to deal with common threats such as space debris. Furthermore, against the background of a U.S. rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region, space cooperation can help reduce suspicion, increase trust, and maintain strategic stability between the two countries.

Possible areas for Sino-U.S. space cooperation may include an invitation by the U.S. for China to join efforts in international space exploration (as suggested by the NRC report), the sharing of space situation awareness (SSA) information, relief of a space technology blockade against China, establishing crisis management mechanisms to guard against miscalculations, as well as the beginning of bilateral and multilateral dialogues on sensitive issues such as space weaponization.

Major obstacles to Sino-U.S. space cooperation are U.S. security concerns and political resistance. With a huge generation gap in space capabilities, Americans may gain much less than the Chinese and it is understandable that the U.S. side is reluctant to cooperate and share. In addition, discrepancies on maritime disputes, cyber issues, and others concerns also hinder space cooperation between China and the U.S.. The removal of zero-sum thinking and political shackles, the integration of China into international efforts of space exploration, and the establishment of institutional bilateral space cooperation mechanisms would be effective approaches to Sino-U.S. space cooperation. Against the backdrop of building a new model for major power relations and in the face of common space security threats, China and the U.S. should overcome the resistance, build a framework for broad space cooperation, and try to overwhelm the impulse of confrontation by the impetus of cooperation.

Dr. Zhao Weibin is a Research Fellow for the Center on China-America Defense Relations (CCADR) at the PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS).

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