Over the past several weeks, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has issued a flurry of strategies and statements pertaining to national security, space and China. These include a new U.S. National Military Strategy and a National Security Space Strategy, which follow on the heels of last year’s National Space Policy. Meanwhile, various administration officials have been opining on the nature of the People’s Republic of China, even as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has visited China and Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama have held their second summit.

From this welter of words and documents, one cannot help but conclude that the administration’s view of China, especially in space, is muddled. How else would one characterize a set of strategies, policies and statements that simultaneously suggest China is a mortal enemy and yet also call for closer cooperation in space? What should Chinese leaders and policymakers think of exhortations for greater space interaction even as they are also described as a threat?

On the one hand, it would appear that American decision-makers see China’s burgeoning space capabilities as threatening. The U.S. National Military Strategy several times mentions China, and specifically notes American concerns about Chinese “assertiveness” in space. The National Security Space Strategy’s discussion of the contested and congested nature of space highlights the effect of China’s anti-satellite test, as well as the growth in national (and non-national) counterspace capabilities that threaten U.S. space systems. It is not difficult to imagine whose national capabilities might be of greatest concern.

Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, testifying before Congress, stated that China poses, “potentially from a capabilities standpoint, a threat to us as a mortal threat.” While Clapper went on to note that he was discussing capabilities and not intentions, it is clear that at the highest reaches of the U.S. government, China’s capabilities, both terrestrial and spatial, are engendering great concern.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has been emphasizing that it wants further cooperation with China, especially in the space arena. Last year’s new National Space Policy emphasizes international cooperation, and administration officials have indicated that this includes China. Moreover, in the joint statement issued during the January 2011 Hu-Obama summit, there was a specific pledge to look for “opportunities for practical future cooperation in the space arena.”

Indeed, the joint statements emanating from the two summits exemplify the problems with the administration’s space policy regarding China. In both the November 2009 and January 2011 statements, the nature of the exchanges is never made clear. Instead, the American drafters accepted hazy references to an “appropriate Chinese counterpart” and “a Chinese delegation,” respectively. In effect, the opaque Chinese space program promises that visits by the head of the U.S. civilian space program will be reciprocated with “players to be named later.”

One has to wonder whether the Chinese side took advantage of American sloppiness, given the thunderous silence that has attended NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s visit to China in October 2010. Now nearly six months past, NASA has refused to provide Congress or the American public much of a glimpse of just what happened during the visit. What was discussed in Bolden’s meetings? What commitments, if any, were made? The administration has resolutely refused to disclose even such basic facts, even as it incorporated plans for a Chinese visit, by an unspecified “delegation,” into the 2011 Hu-Obama joint statement.

The administration repeatedly says that it desires to engage the Chinese in cooperative ventures in space, even as it also terms the Chinese a threat of the highest order, and fails to make explicit its expectations. One could well forgive the authorities in Beijing if they felt the Americans to be utterly inscrutable.

By contrast, the Chinese seem to be pursuing a much clearer policy — they are intent upon developing their space capabilities, regardless of whether the U.S. cooperates or not.

The Chinese lunar exploration program Chang’e saw a second unmanned probe enter lunar orbit in 2010, while the Chinese prepare to land a lunar rover and a subsequent sample retrieval mission in the next several years.

China is also pressing ahead with its Shenzhou and Tiangong programs, preparing a joint mission involving these two craft later this year. The unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission, expected to practice remote docking maneuvers with the Tiangong space lab, will provide essential experience for future manned efforts. In combination with the Chang’e program, the pieces are being put in place for an eventual manned lunar mission. 

Meanwhile, the growth of Chinese military space capabilities is also accelerating. The recently concluded Chinese National People’s Congress approved a substantial increase in China’s official defense budget. The People’s Liberation Army is once again enjoying double-digit defense increases, from 533.5 billion yuan ($81.2 billion) in 2010 to 601.1 billion yuan in 2011 — a 12.7 percent hike. There is little doubt that the Chinese military space program will be a major beneficiary of this largesse.

Even before the latest increase, China was expanding its military space presence. 2010 saw the Chinese launch 12 military satellites — double that of any previous year. These included military communications satellites for one of China’s two military satcom networks as well as electro-optical imaging and synthetic aperture radar satellites that may provide cueing for China’s anti-ship ballistic missile system. Furthermore, China tested an anti-ballistic missile system that could have anti-satellite uses and also had two satellites engage in a variety of orbital maneuvers that may have included deliberately bumping each other.

The U.S. military, from available accounts, has been well aware of these various Chinese activities, but the administration’s response has been muted. One Strategic Command official observed that in the new space race, there is only one participant. If this is the case, it may be because, at this point, the American side is not sure of who is in the race, or even what direction they should be running.


Dean Cheng is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.