The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) activities in outer space present a unique threat to international security that U.S. leadership and the public are only starting to fully appreciate, experts say. Of key importance are the CCP’s blurring of civil and military pursuits and its efforts to exploit U.S. satellite networks.
Central to the CCP’s attempts to dominate space is its national strategy of military–civil fusion, in which the regime seeks the wholesale erosion of any barrier between the civilian and military domains.
The military–civil fusion strategy aims to transform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the world’s preeminent military force by 2049, the centennial anniversary of communist rule on the Chinese mainland, and its implementation is directly overseen by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, according to the U.S. State Department.
The PLA maintains near-total oversight of all aspects of CCP space programs as part of the fusion strategy. This includes the employment of all Chinese astronauts (taikonauts) and the operation of satellite networks.
CCP research or commercial efforts in space are therefore likely to augment the military missions.
No Civil-Military Divide
Li Xiaobing, professor of history and Don Betz Endowed Chair of international studies at the University of Central Oklahoma, spoke to the challenges of thinking about the CCP in terms of separate military and civilian sectors and the problems posed internationally by such a strategy.
“It’s hard to separate because it’s a different system,” Li told The Epoch Times. “In the West, especially in the U.S., you’ve got a private sector and the government. But in China, the government runs both the civilian and commercial sectors and the government sector.
“The civil-military relationship in China is integrated so that it’s a double-function space program for both commercial and military purposes at the same time.”
That double function makes assessing the potential security threat of any given CCP space program difficult, according to Li, as it creates a certain ambiguity as to whether it’s the military or civilian function that’s intended to be dominant.
For Paul Crespo, president of the Center for American Defense Studies and managing editor at American Defense News, the problems associated with double function always tilt toward a military application when dealing with the CCP.
“Everything has dual-use,” Crespo told The Epoch Times. “Yes, there is some scientific research being done, there’s some generic civilian technology being created, but the primary focus, in my opinion, is military. Everything else takes second place to the military aspect.”
Crespo, who previously served as a Marine officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, also underscored that a major difference between the CCP’s fusion strategy and the current U.S. strategy is that the CCP seeks the total integration of cyber warfare into all other elements of its military, including the space operations overseen by the PLA. To that end, Crespo believes that no meaningful differentiation can be made between the military and civilian spheres in the CCP’s grand strategy.
“They consider it all one package,” Crespo said. “As far as I’m concerned, there is no civil-military divide in China when it comes to national objectives.”
Gray-Zone Conflict the New Norm
Conversely, the existence of military applications in space research doesn’t indicate by its very nature the existence of hostile intent or imply that the current state of affairs in space is entirely novel or unusual.
Gary Prater, a fellow at the Center for American Defense Studies, noted that most nations with assets in space seek to leverage the associated technologies and research to augment national security efforts in one way or another.
“Space is and has been militarized since the first satellite launched to space to image other countries’ military forces, bases, missile facilities, and factories,” Prater told The Epoch Times. “China, Russia, the U.S., and many other countries use space assets for military benefits.”
Prater noted the importance of space missions in augmenting capabilities related to a broad number of fields, including communications; GPS; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.
Still, the relative regularity of military applications in space operations doesn’t mean that there’s no threat posed to the international community by CCP space programs and that all is business as usual.
According to Li, the growing prevalence of cybercrime and cyber warfare may lead to a new uptick in hostilities in outer space, as nations become more willing to engage in so-called gray-zone conflict, where hostilities stop short of direct human casualties.
“The American public, including some experts, watch too much TV with war stories like Afghanistan,” Li said. “China has a new concept. The future of war is in space.
“It is easier to make a war decision in space. Killing American people or attacking aircraft carriers, that could be hard. But what if you just shut down a couple [of] satellites? Is that war? People do not have that level of sensitivity about space attacks.”
With that in mind, the CCP continues to invest heavily in new satellite clusters, anti-satellite weapons, and electronic warfare packages designed to shut down the United States’ access to its own satellite network. Earlier this year, Chinese state-owned media announced that the state-owned China Telecom corporation would launch 10,000 satellites over the course of the next 5 to 10 years.
The goal of 10,000 satellites appears aspirational at this point, according to databases maintained by several satellite pass predictors, including N2YO and Heavens-Above, as the current number of Chinese satellites in orbit is less than 480.
Such a goal isn’t impossible, however. The CCP’s focus on so-called informationalized conflicts, or conflicts in which information technologies are crucial to victory, after its military reforms in 2015, could funnel monumental amounts of cash toward satellite programs.
“They have the resources, they have the money, they have the vision, and they have the determination,” Crespo said. “I don’t see anything keeping them from achieving that objective based on the current trends.”
The United States now appears to be taking the threat of gray-zone conflict in space quite seriously and recently announced several initiatives designed to shore up the defenses of its aging space infrastructure, as well as to create new means of building resiliency for its satellite systems.
In July alone, the U.S. Space Force delivered the fourth of five planned software upgrades to its satellite communications system intended to provide increased support for mission planning. The Space Force also announced the opening of a new satellite operations center at the Kirtland Air Force Base dedicated to improving the nation’s space warfighting capabilities.
The National Reconnaissance Office announced that it would pursue a more distributed satellite architecture with many more satellites placed in multiple orbits to prevent the catastrophic loss of satellite communication in the event of an attack.
President Joe Biden also warned that cyber attacks could end up causing an actual war.
However, these efforts may be just the beginning, as U.S. satellite arrays currently mark one of the most vulnerable parts of U.S. defense and security systems.
“China’s desire and ambition is pretty clear,” Li said. “It’s to compete against others, especially the U.S., by targeting the vulnerability of the weakest links of U.S. programs, such as the satellites.”
CCP a ‘Direct Military Threat’
When asked whether the United States was dedicating enough resources to effectively ensure that the CCP wouldn’t pose a serious threat in space, Li spoke plainly. “Not in terms of satellite defense.”
Crespo agreed, saying, “If we don’t put in a lot more money, a lot more time, and a lot more thinking into this, we’re going to fall behind in the one area where we really can’t afford to.”
He also highlighted the centrality of U.S. satellites to the ongoing tensions between the Chinese regime and the United States, as well as their broader importance to the cyber-centric nature of the contemporary gray-zone conflict.
“You don’t have to necessarily knock down our satellites, you just have to destroy our capability to communicate with them or to control them,” Crespo said. “So, the cyber capabilities are an integral part of their [the CCP’s] space project.
“They would more than likely save a kinetic attack on satellites as a last resort, because that is still much more of a clear line of military attack. They would much prefer, and they’ve developed the ability to increasingly do all those things, through cyber, where they can still have some deniability.”
Li and Crespo also agreed on the fact that the CCP and the extent of its ambitions aren’t fully understood by many in the United States, whether they’re in the public or private spheres.
“We don’t do enough here in the United States in the media to highlight the Chinese threat or [their] accomplishments. We ignore it sometimes as propaganda,” Crespo said. “Their level of accomplishment in the space domain is unprecedented, and it’s only happened in the last handful of years.
“I think if the American people knew much more about what the Chinese Communist Party and nation are doing, they would be a lot more concerned.”
Li explained that the CCP initiated its military efforts in space because party leadership knew that the ability to get the better of Western powers in space would be essential to winning any potential war.
“The next war is going to be in space,” he said.
According to Li, the outcome of the next war will depend on how quickly the United States and its allies adapt to the reality of space-based warfare.
“The current U.S. administration, as well as other Western countries, did not have a long-term policy to deal with China’s space program,” he said. “It’s very reactive, a reaction-based policy. It’s wait and see.”
The two experts also warned that the CCP’s control of space programs through the PLA increases the likelihood of further space militarization and either deliberate or accidental damage to vital space infrastructure through gray-zone conflict.
“China is going to send its first space station next year,” Li said, “which will serve the purposes of the military.”
Crespo noted that the CCP views the control held by the United States in space as both one of its greatest strengths and one of its biggest weaknesses.
“They see the United States’ dominance in space as being central to the nation’s ability to project power. And it’s also its greatest weakness,” he said. “Without neutralizing us in space, they don’t think they can ever win a war. So, it’s absolutely No. 1 priority for them to be able to counter the United States if not eventually displace the United States from dominating space.”
Both remained hopeful, however, that Americans were beginning to fully comprehend the potential for real conflict in space between the Chinese regime and the United States, and what that threat might mean for relations between the two countries.
“I think we’re finally realizing the level of the threat,” Crespo said. “They are a direct military threat. They are an adversary, if not an enemy.”