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China’s ‘Space Silk Road’ and Strategic Competition in Space

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CDA Institute guest contributor Malcolm Davis, a post-​doctoral research fellow at Bond University, Australia, comments on the possibility of Sino-​American strategic competition in outer space.

In May 2015, the Chinese government released its latest Defence White Paper simply titled ‘Military Strategy.’ This year’s Defence White Paper has been notable in particular for an elevation of the prominence of the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy’s (PLAN) role and a greater attention on building China as a full maritime power. The document states:

The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.

The White Paper goes on to emphasize that China will extend its global reach across the oceans, with the PLAN adopting a more expansive role that encompasses both offshore waters defence and ‘open seas protection.’ This represents a powerful shift in China’s strategic affairs. Dennis Blasko sums up the significance of this development, stating that:

The white paper has thereby acknowledged the need to shift the balance in PLA thinking from ground operations to joint naval and aerospace operations – something that has been signalled for years (going back officially at least to 2004) but will require change in all aspects of future military modernization. The impact of this admission on the PLA as an institution cannot be understated. It will have effects on everything from force size, structure and composition to personnel policies, doctrine, training, and logistics and equipment acquisition.

At the same time, China is promoting its Silk Road Initiatives – often referred to as ‘One Belt and One Road’ after the Silk Road Economic Belt across Eurasia in the north, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in the south. These two initiatives are a key aspect of Chinese grand strategy to achieve Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ of a rejuvenation into a “rich country with a strong army,” its return to Great Power status within Asia, and to achieve national strategic objectives of “perpetuating Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, sustaining economic growth and development, maintaining domestic political stability, defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and securing China’s status as a great power.” Beijing also seeks a Chinese-​led ‘community of common destiny’ which sees new political, economic and security structures that replace existing arrangements, and in doing so, reducing US influence in Asia at a strategic level (see here and here).

If China is to protect its growing strategic interests along the ‘one belt and one road,’ and facilitate a more ambitious blue-​water posture for the PLAN, the role and importance of Outer Space as an operational domain will grow. At the military level, the PLA is already seeking to fully utilize space capabilities to ensure it can fight and win “informationized local wars” by seizing a decisive information advantage over an adversary by attacking an opponent’s C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) systems across all operational domains, including in space from the outset of a conflict. The 2015 White Paper states, “Outer Space and cyber space have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties.” Chinese thinking emphasizes space as a strategic centre of gravity and a new high ground, from which control of the ground, oceans and electromagnetic spectrum delivers strategic initiative. The 2014 US Chinese Military Power report states:

PLA writings emphasize the necessity of “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance and communications satellites” suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to ‘blind and deafen the enemy’. The same PLA analysis of US and coalition military operations also states that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors will deprive an opponent of initiative on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision guided weapons into full play.”

Furthermore, space itself might be considered a future third ‘silk road’ that China could project power and influence alongside the existing ‘one belt and one road’ (also see here and here). China looks set to promote access to its satellite capabilities such as the Beidou navigation satellites, Tianlian communications, and Gaofen and Haiyang imaging satellites to promote cooperative regional development. In the same way that the ‘one belt and one road’ promotes regional integration with China and reduces US influence, a ‘Space Silk Road’ would achieve the same result in the space domain. It makes eminent strategic sense to do this. Furthermore, it is necessary if China wants to reap full benefits from promoting cooperative development with its neighbors, especially since globalized information-​based economies depend on space capabilities to function.

In response, the US and its key allies in the Asia-​Pacific region need to promote diversity in provision of space capabilities to rapidly developing states. This will help to prevent China from taking the high ground on space, whether militarily or commercially. There is ample room commercial space competition between China and the United States, and Japan and possibly India can potentially provide alternatives to a Chinese Space Silk Road. At the military level, one should not ignore the vital role of Space capabilities for both sides. Without access to space systems, US military power would be emasculated. As noted by General William Shelton (USAF), Commander USAF Space Command, at the US-​China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2014:

In space, our sustained mission success integrating these satellite capabilities into our military operations has encouraged potential adversaries to further develop counter-​space technologies and attempt to exploit our systems and information. We are so dependent on space these days. We plug into it like a utility. It is always there. Nobody worries about it…You do not even know sometimes that you are touching Space. So [to lose US space capabilities] it would be almost a reversion back to industrial-​based warfare.

Simply put, the United States and its allies cannot afford to ‘lose space’ in future war or in peacetime. To lose space, by seeing its access to critical space systems denied or those systems disrupted or destroyed, will mean that the ‘American way of war’ – fast, decisive, precise, and with minimal casualties – effectively disappears. Chinese dominance of space through a ‘Space Silk Road’ weakens US strategic influence across Asia. Ultimately, what disappears is Washington’s ability to fulfil security assurances to key regional allies – from South Korea to Japan to the Philippines. Advantage – China!

Dr. Malcolm Davis is a Post-​Doctoral Research Fellow in China-​Western Relations with the Faculty of Science and Design at Bond University, Australia. His area of research focus is on Chinese military modernization and defence policy, Asia-​Pacific security issues, as well as military-​technological transformation and the future of warfare. You can find him on Twitter @Dr_M_Davis. (Image courtesy of China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.)

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Guest Friday, 20 January 2017
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