The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Chinese ASAT debris cloud
Debris from the 2007 Chinese ASAT test. Chinese concepts of “deterrence” are different from Western ones, which could pose problems for American national security space strategy. (credit: AGI)

Re-thinking the National Security Space Strategy: Chinese vs. American perceptions of space deterrence

Bookmark and Share

Many scholars and strategic analysts have declared that the 21st Century geopolitical environment will be shaped in the Asia-Pacific region.1 Following World War II, the United States’ foreign policy has aided the development of this region, from both a security and economic standpoint. For example, the US military have commanded and patrolled the global commons, which includes the sea, air, space, and cyberspace, allowing for rapid and decisive power projection in the distant Asia-Pacific theater. One of the main benefactors of this economic and military assistance and power has been the People’s Republic of China. China “benefited from the U.S. containment of the Soviet Union” as well as other cooperative assistance such as normalized trade relations, admission to the WTO and military-to-military talks to aid the Chinese’s “peaceful rise.” Yet, China, “unlike its Asian peers, does not appear content with the American made and dominated international order.”2

One way to “defeat” the United States is through utilizing “historical military traditions and strategic thinking” such as focusing on more asymmetric means to take out the United States and its allies through the “soft ribs” of America’s military and economic power: space based systems.

The People’s Republic of China seeks to “make Asia safe for the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This means building military strength to ward off external political pressure to liberalize. This strategy clearly works. As China has grown stronger… Western government calls for political reform have incrementally dissipated.” 3 As with this aim to preserve the CCP’s power and influence, the Chinese have aimed at preserving the “whole” of China and “reversing legacies of the “century of humiliation”4 . During that time, Western powers, including the United States, participated in the “open door policy”5 whereby the Chinese became party to what they refer to as “unequal treaties”6 among other items that led to this proud nation that viewed themselves as the “Middle Kingdom” with their Emperor the ruler of the world being exploited. Ever since then, “weakness” either perceived or realized, has been an issue of great importance for the CCP leadership, especially Mao. In order to maintain the perception of strength, even with a less than capable People’s Liberation Army, they have utilized behavior viewed in the Western world as aggression. Some examples of this include the intervention in the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995, and the Sino-Indian War in 1962.

The current, much stronger and more robust People’s Liberation Army “seeks greater control of China’s periphery, particularly the East, Yellow and South China Seas.”7 The reason is that first, “China believes that a great power must be able to exercise a veto over anyone seeking to operate close to its shores. Second, it wants to leverage to settle on its own terms longstanding territorial or sovereignty disputes with Japan, Taiwan, and other Southeast Asia nations.”8 In addition, with the strong United States military presence and defense treaty commitments in that region of the world, the Chinese must prepare for conflict with the United States, the sole power capable of containing or limiting the growth of the influence and power of the People’s Republic,9 and indeed most of their writings and planning documents available are focused on how to defeat the United States.

This concept appears to have been crafted in a strategic and cultural analysis vacuum, given the unimpeded Chinese activity in space weapons research and testing, and its very different view toward deterrence.

One way to “defeat” the United States is through utilizing “historical military traditions and strategic thinking” such as focusing on more asymmetric means to take out the United States and its allies through the “soft ribs”10 of America’s military and economic power: space based systems. Wang Hucheng has stated that American dependence on space constitutes “the U.S. military’s “soft ribs” and strategic weaknesses”. For countries cannot win a war with the United States by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking U.S. space systems may be an irresistible and most tempting choice.” This realization of the strategic importance of American spacepower began during and after Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and became even more apparent throughout the follow-on operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq; Everett Dolman and Henry F. Cooper have referred to these operations as “military spacepower’s coming out party.” Given the 2012 Strategic Guidance released by the Obama Administration announcing the “pivot” toward Asia-Pacific, the PLA realize that with its current capabilities, “any effort to defeat the United States through an orthodox force on force encounter, centered on simple attrition”11 wouldn’t be as effective given the present superiority of conventional American forces. Therefore, since the 1990s, the Chinese have been developing what PLA writings have referred as “space-based fire networks” to conduct “space attack operations”. (China’s NDU Book 3 on Space Warfare Campaigns, titled “Attack to Deter” and published in 2005, speak to constructing space-based fire networks. These networks are, as written by Yuan Zelu’s paper “Space Warfare of the Joint Campaign,” described them as being “made up of the network systems of the various strike platforms that are in orbit.”) These research and development programs coupled with doctrine development, culminated with the test of the SC-19 direct ascent anti-satellite weapon in January of 2007. Since then, the Chinese have demonstrated that developing and testing this space weapons capability is a “national priority”.12 . As a result, numerous reports and conferences within the Department of Defense and the Congress have expressed concern regarding the development of these weapons and the testing and potential deployment of these weapons in a crisis situation.13

American response: the National Security Space Strategy and space deterrence

In 2009, the Department of Defense began a Space Posture Review of all its national security systems. The question became: How to create a deterrence model for space, given the existence and testing of space weapons, to ensure that further debris-causing and potentially destabilizing space actions do not occur in the future? The National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) was the answer through a deterrence concept known as “collective assurance.” 14

In Western strategic thought, deterrence is defined as “the threat intended to keep an adversary from doing something.”15 Within the framework of the NSSS, the objective is to “…deter the development, testing, and employment of counterspace systems and prevent and deter aggression against space systems and supporting infrastructure that support U.S. national security.”16 The Department of Defense believes that the best way to “deny a potential aggressor” is through creating interdependence within its vital space architectures through international agreements and operational tactics, techniques, and procedures. Through this, in their view, it would “deny a potential aggressor the opportunity to fight on-on-one. Instead, the aggressor must attack assets and forces of multiple countries, which expands the scope of a conflict and reduces the odds that a potential aggressor can achieve their desired outcome at an acceptable cost.”17 This concept appears to have been crafted in a strategic and cultural analysis vacuum, given the unimpeded Chinese activity in space weapons research and testing, and its very different view toward deterrence. What we as a nation or coalition perceive as an “acceptable cost” and what the Chinese perceive as deterrence and acceptable cost, given the contemporary history and objectives of the CCP and PLA, are two very different things.

The PLA defines the strategy of deterrence (weishe zhanlue) as “the display of military power, or the threat of use of military power, in order to compel an opponent to submit.”18 In other words, as Henry Kissinger states, China’s view of deterrence “is similar to the Western concept of preemption—anticipating an attack by launching the first blow.”19 While the Chinese view does have some pre-emptive characteristics, its use in history appears to relate more to coercion or compellence than pure deterrence in the Western sense. Coercion is defined as “causing someone to choose one course of action over another by making the choice that the coercer prefers appear more attractive than the alternative.”20 An example of this in conventional conflict would be during the Sino-Indian War in 1962. The PLA invaded India, conducted military operations, and then re-deployed back to their border positions. The goal was to coerce or compel the Indians to not push China into full-scale war and place Beijing into a better negotiating position.21 The way to accomplish this is to demonstrate that the PLA was not weak and ready to conduct those operations if needed. They had achieved what is known as escalation dominance. Having the ability to achieve a “psychological shock” enabled China to deter through force, their enemies by demonstrating their ability to fight and emerge victorious. (Mao’s motivating force, according to Kissinger, was “less to inflict a decisive military first blow than to change the psychological balance.” Having a psychological shock to their enemy, achieved the goal of “genuine deterrence.”)

This view is clearly seen in the PLA’s current definition of deterrence and falls in line with the historical view toward Western passive deterrence as “ridiculous”. Mao Zedong was quoted as saying that the Western style of deterrence didn’t make sense. The goal, in his mind, should not be to “wait for an attack. Wherever possible, [the goal was to seize] the initiative…[and to] alter [the enemy’s] calculus of risks” in a crisis. 22 While the NSSS advocates a concept of deterrence that many in the national security space community believe does not have any teeth or political will to back up its foundational principles of “an attack on one, is an attack on all”,23 the PLA is developing, training and equipping their forces for an “active defense strategy.” At a minimum, demonstrating an ASAT capability, as in 2007, is one way to deter through demonstration of a coercive or compelling way, to let the United States know that they are not going to be a second rate power in space, or be contained willingly, 24 as some believe the goal of the “pivot” to the Pacific is intended to be. (The Congressional Research Service’s Report on the Pacific “Rebalance” highlighted the concerns of many that the Administration’s push to highlight the Pacific, while “prudent,” is related to the recent Chinese aggrandizement in the region and its military modernization.) If the Chinese believe that the United States actions in space or in the Pacific were to jeopardize what China views as their ascendance to their “rightful place” in the world, an ASAT test is one way to send a message, at moderately low risk, 25 that they are ready and capable of using these weapons to hold key US military space assets at risk and degrade American air and sea operations to the point that might increase the costs and risks of US forces conducting operations in the Taiwan Strait to deter the PLA in a Taiwan Strait crisis. Territorial integrity and its sphere of influence will be maintained, and some in China believe that to give up the testing and deployment of space weapons (as the NSSS also advocates) would be to “condemn its armed forces to inevitable defeat in any encounter with American power. This would mean, among other things, risking the ‘loss’ of Taiwan, with all the attendant consequences for the unity of China and the survival of the Communist leadership.”26

We as a nation need a deterrence policy geared toward and developed around those nations that follow an active deterrence strategy and provide ourselves the means to protect from, rather than respond to, space attacks.

Another aspect of this view of coercive deterrence is the concept of “encirclement.” As mentioned earlier, one of the goals of the modern PLA is to gain more control over their periphery. This goes back to their long view of history and perceived threats of invasion and encirclement from the Soviet Union, the United States, and Japan. Some of these threats did come to pass, while others did not. Some actions of the United States, such as the deployment of the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s, was considered by Mao as “invasion,” and the defense of South Korea as “aggression” or “encirclement” by the United Nations and supporting allied powers, similar to what occurred during the “century of humiliation”. (The “century of humiliation” refers to the period of foreign intervention by Western powers and Japan in China between 1839 and 1949. It has been referred to by Chinese leaders for decades during interaction with Western powers.) Their actions in the various Taiwan Strait crises, the Korean War, or even the ASAT demonstration are perceived by the Chinese as “defeating aggression.” With the NSSS emphasizing coalitions in space systems, and some strategy observers concern about “encirclement paranoia”27 on the part of the Chinese, this author does not believe that it will deter the Chinese from using ASAT weapons. Instead, it might create the environment enabling the use of those weapons as a tool for Chinese coercion to get the United States to choose an option of the Chinese’s preference, which would mean a main part of its counter-intervention strategy and a way to prevent further encirclement through the “rebalance” to the Pacific.

Conclusions and policy recommendations

Many in the space policy community may find this historical line of argument against the present space deterrence policy as irrelevant given the fact that deterrence and the international system, of which China is part, has been around for sixty plus years. However, the Chinese have a much longer view of history and a clear view of themselves as a nation as well as a civilization. Achieving the development of a “blueprint for achieving space dominance” in space provides what one Chinese leader referred as a very “tempting” option of striking at American and allied interdependent space systems.28 (One scholar who analyzes Chinese military writings for the Department of Defense declared that “for more than a decade, Chinese military strategists and aerospace scientists have been constructing a blue print for achieving space dominance.”) This provides them a low-risk option to achieve their objectives given that the political will to go to war over a destroyed series of satellites, most likely will be lower than a more traditional act of aggressive behavior. In a discussion thread following Michael Krepon’s article on space deterrence (see “Space and nuclear deterrence”, The Space Review, September 16, 2013), Everett Dolman stated, “No military response on the surface of the Earth was ever seriously contemplated for an attack on a machine in orbit because the value of human life is much greater than any satellite—and anyone who proposes a nuclear or conventional terrestrial response to even the complete destruction of a satellite should check his or her morality at the door.”

Re-thinking our concept of space deterrence in the National Security Space Strategy is warranted given the strategic context seemingly lacking in its framework. We as a nation need a deterrence policy geared toward and developed around those nations that follow an active deterrence strategy and provide ourselves the means to protect from, rather than respond to, space attacks. If we are not willing to put a high price for our adversaries to pay for attacking our space systems, then we are exposing ourselves, providing strategic confidence for the Chinese government, and enabling the Chinese to continue to get by with coercive actions that we are trying to prevent in the first place.


1 Blumenthal, Dan. Asian Alliances in the 21st Century. Project 2049 Institute, p. 1

2 Ibid. p2

3 Ibid p. 3

4 Ibid p. 3

5 Kissinger, Henry. On China. Penguin Press, 2011, p. 88

6 Ibid .p. 87

7 Blumenthal, p. 3

8 Ibid. p. 3

9 Gray, Colin. The Sheriff: America’s Defense of the New World Order. Univ of Kentucky Press. 2004, p. 3

10 Tellis, Ashley. “China’s Military Space Strategy.” Survival, 2007, pp.41–72.

11 Tellis, p. 48

12 Easton, Sean. “The Great Game In Space: China’s Evolving ASAT Weapons Programs and Their Implications for Future U.S. Strategy.” Project 2049, p. 2

13 Saunders, Phillip. “China’s ASAT Test Motivations and Implications.” Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 46, 3rd Qtr. 2007, p. 39

14 Palowitch, Andrew. “Collective Assurance” High Frontier Journal, 2010, p. 31

15 Cheng, Dean. “Chinese Views on Deterrence”. Joint Forces Quarterly, 2011, p. 92

16 National Security Space Strategy. 2011. p. 10

17 DoD Strategy for Deterrence in Space FACT SHEET. 2011

18 Cheng, p. 92

19 Kissinger, p. 133

20 Mueller, Karl. “The Essence of Coercive Air Power: A Primer for Military Strategists.” Air Power Journal. Vol 2. No.1 Spring 2007, p. 160

21 Kissinger, p. 189, 191

22 Ibid. p. 133

23 Whittington, Mark. “Chinese Test New Anti-Satellite Weapons While Obama Remains Passive”. Yahoo Voices Editorial. August 26, 2013.

24 Manyin, Mark E. et al. “Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalancing’ Toward Asia.” Congressional Research Service, March 28, 2012, p.19

25 Saunders, p. 41

26 Tellis, p .49

27 Barnett, Thomas. ”Big-War Thinking in a Small-War Era: The Rise of the Air Sea Battle Concept”. China Security, Vol 6, No 3, 2010, p. 3

28 Tellis, p .49