by Craig Tiedman
Thursday, 18
March 2021
Explainer
11:28

The Chinese threat in space

Unrestrained by international law, the country is behaving recklessly
by Craig Tiedman
Thanks to China’s belligerence, the line between military and civil space has become increasingly blurred

Nearly 20 years ago, nobody in my NASA office wanted the ‘China Portfolio’. Its militarised space programme, combined with its lack of transparency, meant that the country was prohibited from participating in collaborative space programmes. Unlike Russia, which after the Cold War became a strong partner and one bound by the joint treaties from decades past, China never followed suit.

This week’s Integrated Review (IR) implicitly recognised this fact. Its references throughout the report to the Indo-Pacific tilt is coded language for China. In recent years, it has become increasingly aggressive and militaristic in the space domain. Untethered from any treaty agreements, it secretly struck deals with Russia whose technology enabled its great leap forward as a key player in space today. 

As a result the IR advocates bringing together ‘military and civilian space policy for the first time’ and building sovereign capabilities ‘…to protect and defend our interests in a more congested and contested space domain.’  It warns that Britain is too reliant on allies for critical infrastructure, notably the ability to launch satellites, and must improve its capabilities.

That is especially important now. Given that there is no real “international law” in space, China has behaved recklessly. For instance, in 2007 it tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon on one of its own ageing satellites and the debris narrowly missed the occupied International Space Station. Furthermore, exploding a satellite in lower Earth orbit (LEO) spreads out thousands of particles that can rip through the paper thin components of other satellites.

Thanks to China’s belligerence, the line between military and civil space has become increasingly blurred. He was mocked for it by the media at the time, but Donald Trump was right to create a US Space Force in 2019. US defence capabilities depend on space-based technologies, which must be protected.

So what can the UK do? It should play a full role in stopping Earth orbit from becoming a militarised zone of confrontation instead of the global commons that it should be.

The IR suggests that the British government should contribute to the strengthening of international institutions and ‘increase the UK’s international collaboration across our space-related objectives’. As well as close cooperation with traditional partners such as NASA and ESA, the UK should seek collaborations with non-traditional space partners, like India, and leverage the Commonwealth structure to support a new space architecture to counter the Chinese threat.

It is only by doing this that liberal democracies can lead the way in space and preserve it as the global commons that it should be.

Craig Tiedman is an advisor on space and defence policy, and a former NASA and Pentagon official

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
12 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

So what? Good luck to them. They prefer to spend their money (which is sometimes our aid money) on exploring space. We prefer to spend it on insane wars, insane levels of public sector non-jobs, insane levels of welfare, housing thousands of asylum seekers in 4-star hotels, and all the rest of the insanity.

Last edited 1 year ago by Fraser Bailey
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

They are not exploring space out of curiosity, but to exploit advantage, and as every CCP industry has military function, it is to exploit space for military advantage.

Also UK is not in any insane wars, and such military adventures as it has, all are very much the situations which keep the military grounded in reality.

Without the Iraq war (where UK sat behind barbed wire in Basra impotently watching the war-Lords rampage outside, and finally they had to be escorted out by the USA Army as they would have been hurt badly without help, just leaving the base they hid in. – because the British Politicians forbade the Army from sustaining, or giving, any causalities less they lose votes. I imagine the military could have handled its self, but was led by donkeys.) (In Afghanistan it did fight, and is a much better force because of that. Aside from the Sgt Blackman incident where the Politicians turned on their own troops, prosecuting them for fighting in combat, and as it did to other poor Tommies there (as it did in NI) The British military would resemble the Met Police under Cressida Richard, and likely keeled at the Cenotaph, it it had not been for Afghanistan.

Charles Levett-Scrivener
Charles Levett-Scrivener
1 year ago

wishful thinking; if China does not wish to change its behaviour it wont. Some of the actions noted above preceded President Xi.
It is more realistic for the UK to build launch sites (two at least, Cornwall, Northern Scotland), build our launch capability; see what civilian spin offs are possible: space manufacturing or solar panels with microwaves to send energy back to ground(?); prepare counter measures and defenses.

Last edited 1 year ago by Charles Levett-Scrivener
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

Maybe one at Sibton Abbey as well?

Gary Greenbaum
Gary Greenbaum
1 year ago

Kinda lousy weather for a spaceflight center. Launching from so far north will require a lot of extra energy.

G Matthews
G Matthews
1 year ago

Hmm, I wonder if Craig was at NASA when Bill Clinton was president, in which case he would know that it was Clinton who agreed to transfer the technology to China to launch satellites (before that transfer happened they had never managed to) and followed Clinton’s order to tranfer missile technology to China. The rest is history.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  G Matthews

Bill Clinton! And Crazy Bush! And now Biden thinks Vlad Putin is his boyhood nemesis Corn-Pop and wants to fight him behind the pool house.

Auberon Linx
Auberon Linx
1 year ago

What a one-sided article. “China secretly struck deals with Russia” to gain new technologies – why is this problematic? It certainly appears less sinister than the fact that the US space program was built by Nazi scientists.
Also, the Chinese are not militarising space. They are trying to catch up with the US who have been working for decades to monopolise it in order to gain the upper hand in on-ground conflicts as well as potential access to non-Earth resources in future.
Having several powers competing in a new space race will lead to faster technological breakthroughs, as well as reassure those of us who are not enthused by a prospect of absolute dominance by a single entity, not even a supposedly benevolent one such as the States.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

Instead of a pointless argument over who started the militarisation of space, let’s just acknowledge that China is not well-disposed towards the rest of the world and we have to choose. Do we want to be living in a society run on Chinese lines in 50 years time, or do we push back?
This is not a value judgement over whether Western or Chinese values are “better”. It’s simply a question of whether we want to be at least partially in control of our own destiny or not.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
1 year ago

I fear Mr. Tiedman is telling just one side of the story. In my view the militarisation of space began in 1958 when Lyndon Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader convened some hearings in response to the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik in 1957. In a speech he said “Control of space means control of the world, far more certainly, far more totally than any control that has ever or could ever be achieved by weapons, or by troops of occupation”.
From that time the U,S, sought to develop and maintain dominance against the Soviet Union. President Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative was the first attempt at developing orbital weaponry. The fall of the Soviet Union meant the U.S. was without peer in space. But in recent years it has become “spooked” by the rapid development of space activity by China. For example China made its first lunar landing in 2017 and has declared its aim to establish a base there. It also has a rover on its way to Mars. This has led to the establishment of the U.S. Space Force in 2019 by President Trump which has a budget of 15.4 billion dollars. It is busy deploying ASATs (anti-satellite missiles), as is China.
Warfare in space is becoming a possibility as a growing number of nations explore space independently. They are also seeking ways of capitalising on the establishment of bases and extracting valuable minerals from the moon and planets. There is always the danger that as space becomes heavily populated with satellites and space craft accidents will happen. In 2007 China tested an ASAT on an old weather satellite and the debris still poses a threat to other satellites today. In 2019 an IndianASAT test caused debris to come very close to the International Space Station. We can but pray that contrary to the General John Hyten of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff space warfare will not be “inevitable”.

Gary Greenbaum
Gary Greenbaum
1 year ago

I really am getting tired of the endless stream of articles here displaying Xi?-No!-phobia. The US wants to dominate space. No one nation should do so.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

The US could have had a moonbase in the 70s if they had wanted to.