WASHINGTON — An influential congressional advisory body warned in its annual report that strategic and systemic competition between the United States and China continues to intensify as Beijing forges ahead with its ambitious plans to surpass American power.

The 741-page report, released Nov. 14 by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, paints a sobering picture of China’s rapid military buildup and pursuit of global influence through a variety of means. And it warns that managing this complex rivalry will remain a top national security priority for the foreseeable future.

“The new normal is one of continuing, long-term strategic and systemic competition,” the report said. According to the commission, the People’s Republic of China is pouring “unprecedented” resources into modernizing its military, with a focus on breakthroughs in missiles, space, undersea warfare and artificial intelligence.

The report underscores the ways in which Beijing seeks to shape global affairs to its benefit, from military coercion to technology acquisition to influence operations, and makes it clear that the United States faces a formidable strategic competitor.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, established in 2000, is an independent agency of the U.S. government that directly reports to Congress and the president.

“Although a sustained economic slowdown could force difficult choices and tradeoffs, China continues to pour resources into its unprecedented military buildup,” the report said.

Efforts to shape international norms

In sectors like space and cyberspace, the commission said, China seeks to shape international law in its favor by discrediting established norms, exporting authoritarian elements of its legal system, and influencing laws and norms development.

Efforts to shape international law are especially focused on areas Chinese jurists call “frontier law” — in emerging fields like space, cyber and nuclear security in which international law has been less clearly defined. 

“China views the current international architecture that governs space as favorable to its interests,” said the report. “It has refrained from endorsing efforts to establish norms for responsible behavior in space.” Further, China is wary of proposed changes to the order “that it believes would constrain its future actions in space, particularly U.S.-sponsored changes like the voluntary moratorium on destructive anti-satellite testing in space.”

Extracting resources in space

On the issue of resources derived from space, the report notes that current international space law does not include a legal mechanism to clearly adjudicate ownership of space-based resources, leaving room for interpretation based on the dictates of a country’s national interests.

The report says Beijing “intends to claim a right to use space-based resources in the absence of a clear legal framework regulating mining in space.” 

The Outer Space Treaty states that celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation, but it is vague on the legal status of any resources extracted from those bodies, the commission pointed out. And China has expressed opposition to the Artemis Accords, framing the agreement as an attempt by the United States to unilaterally set ground rules for lunar behavior.

“China’s criticism of the accords likely indicates trepidation that the NASA-led initiative will outpace China’s lunar program,” the commission said.

Space-based nuclear weapon

China is pursuing a space-based nuclear weapon that has the potential to threaten the U.S. homeland with a new global strike capability, the report said. 

“China is already a world leader in missile and space technologies, and tighter U.S. export controls are unlikely to have an effect on future Chinese innovation in these areas,” the commission noted. 

“Beijing’s pursuit of space-based nuclear weapons and potential development of low-yield warheads could also complicate U.S. deterrence by offering the PLA greater flexibility to threaten or engage in limited nuclear use against U.S. forces in the region.”

China’s apparent development of a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) raises the possibility that China could permanently deploy nuclear weapons in space, effectively adding a fourth leg to its nascent nuclear triad.  FOBS is defined as a payload that is delivered into low-Earth orbit but reenters the atmosphere to bombard a target before completing a full orbit.

The development of a FOBS, said the report, “illustrates Beijing’s commitment to identifying diverse methods of delivering nuclear weapons.”

The FOBS “poses a threat to strategic stability by allowing China to potentially deliver larger nuclear payloads than via ICBMs alone after remaining undetected for long portions of its flight.”

To tackle the competition with China, the commission in its report makes several recommendations to Congress, including reforms in export controls and more stringent reviews of foreign investments in U.S. companies.

“If China overtakes long-standing areas of U.S. advantage in undersea warfare and space and establishes a decisive lead in AI,” the report warned, “the balance of power in Asia and worldwide could be dramatically altered.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...