WASHINGTON — A new study by the U.S. Air Force’s university think tank confirms the widely held view that China’s anti-satellite weapons pose a national security threat to the United States. But the study also highlights China’s use of soft power and diplomacy as potentially powerful weapons that could undermine the United States.
“China’s Space Narrative” released Sept. 17, was a joint project by the U.S. Air Force Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute and the CNA nonprofit research center.
“As the era of great power competition continues to evolve, we must understand the full breadth and depth of the competition, how they think, and how they are likely to act or react,” Brendan Mulvaney, director of the China Aerospace Studies Institute, writes in the introduction to the report.
CASI used publicly available native language resources to draw insights on how the Chinese view the U.S.-China space relationship.
“The two countries are in a long term competition in which China is attempting to become a global power, and part of this effort is being played out in space,” the study says.
China’s diplomacy push
The United States views China as a military rival in space with a growing array of anti-satellite weapons. The report casts this issue in a broader perspective, noting that the rise of China’s space program poses a combination of military, economic and political challenges to the United States,
Although national security is China’s primary motivation for its space program, the report says, perhaps a bigger concern for the United States will be China’s diplomatic push to win over allies and challenge U.S. leadership in space.
“China’s space policy is one element of China’s foreign policy goal of reshaping the international system to better serve Chinese national interests,” the report says, adding that China’s space activities are intended to build its reputation as a reliable and attractive space partner.
A narrative advanced by China is that, unlike the United States, it takes an open and inclusive approach to international space cooperation, the report says. Chinese writings, further, depict the United States as undermining outer space as a peaceful frontier.
Chinese media cite U.S. military doctrine, space wargames and the establishment of a U.S. Space Force to portray the United States as a malevolent force bent on dominating space and restricting China’s access to space, the report says.
At the same time, Chinese analysts minimize the military role of their own country space program.
Fixation on U.S. commercial space
Chinese analysts, according to the report, see the U.S. commercial space sector — and especially SpaceX — as role models that Chinese companies should emulate.
China views the U.S. commercial space industry as a major advantage for the United States. The report says China’s private commercial sector faces many challenges, including a lack of a supportive policy environment, and the central government’s favoritism toward the state owned sector.
Chinese authors also follow developments in other U.S. commercial space companies such as Digital Globe and Rocket Lab, the report says. “Yet the coverage these companies receive in Chinese academic writings and media reporting pales in comparison to that of SpaceX.”
A key advantage Chinese authors see in SpaceX is the company’s capability for in-house manufacturing — unlike the traditional space industry model of outsourcing the engines, electronic components, navigation systems and ground support equipment, says the study. Chinese analysts argue that although SpaceX’s in-house approach appears to run counter to the modern trend of company specialization, it is in fact critical for keeping costs down.