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Chinese Space Station
China is leveraging its space program, like its planned space station, as tools to influence other nations and establish standards of behavior. (credit: China Manned Space Agency)

China’s grand strategy in outer space: to establish compelling standards of behavior

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Invoking Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to understand China—notwithstanding the fact that the China of today is a polity inspired by German philosopher Karl Marx and his political ideology of Marxism—offers significant insights. Sun Tzu’s advice to the Commander during the Warring Period (476–221 BC) was to imbibe the spirit of a comprehensive grand strategy for success. These includes an understanding of the power of norms (moral legitimacy), heaven, earth (physical conditions), leadership, and finally, method and discipline (assessment of military capability, context, relative power potential/difference, logistics, resources). Once all elements come together, a state can benefit from a grand strategy for success.

China’s strategy to shape the path for its renaissance and emergence as lead actor in outer space by 2045 can be understood through a Sun Tzu-inspired lens.

Sun Tzu counseled that when circumstances were favorable, plans must be modified, with an element of deception maintained as the core guiding tactical principle. The critical core of his philosophy and strategy was that: behave in such a way that the adversary/competitor is unprepared for who you are. This is accomplished by feeding into adversary perceptions of who they believe you are, and not who you actually are. (As I was told in Beijing, “USA thinks we only copy their space technology, cannot innovate. They are right. We are just followers.”) Depending on who your “target audience” was, a king, according to Sun Tzu, could accomplish a particular desired end goal, by stratagem, and superior influence operations backed by targeted resources.

China’s strategy to shape the path for its renaissance and emergence as lead actor in outer space by 2045 can be understood through a Sun Tzu-inspired lens. For one, it was made clear by President Xi Jinping, in his 2012 speech, while he was touring an exhibition on “The Road to Renewal” hosted by the National Museum of China, that the time for renaissance and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is now. This is Xi’s dream, outlined further when he became president in 2013, that China crystallize itself into the world leading power overall, to include space, that benefits its citizens. In order to ensure stability to that dream, Xi took the unprecedented step of making himself president for life, despite his claims to the contrary of intra-Communist Party of China (CPC) democratic reforms. With that step, he categorically put an end to the once-per-decade high-level CPC leadership transition.

The building of alliances and legitimacy

After Xi took over the reins of China, he has undertaken significant steps to build China’s space capability. Under him, China tested several key technologies for the first time in space: in 2013, a Chinese satellite, Shiyan 7 (SY-7, Experiment 7), with a prototype robotic arm demonstrated that it could capture another satellite in orbit, explained as a space maintenance mission by China, but with dual implications of grabbing adversary satellites.SY-7 also rendezvoused with two other Chinese satellites, the Chuangxin 3 (CX-3) and the Shijian 7 (SJ-7, Practice 7). The strategic significance of these maneuvers at that time was that SY-7 surprised everyone by its sudden maneuvers with a completely different satellite, the SJ-7 (launched in 2005) instead of what experts thought it would rendezvous with, the CX-3 launched along with SY-7 in 2013.

In 2017, China demonstrated the launch and docking of its indigenous cargo spacecraft, the Tianzhou 1, with its space lab, the Tiangong 2. In May 2018, China launched its relay satellite, the Queqiao, to L2 halo orbit to enable communications between its upcoming Chang’e-4 lunar mission to the far side of the Moon. In January 2019, Chang’e-4 successfully landed on the farside.

In July, for the very first time, Chinese private space company, ispace, launched successfully into orbit. Earlier such attempts by Onespace had failed. This is part of President Xi’s push for encouraging private space startups, and investment flows as a result. Under President Xi’s civil-military integration strategy, the PLA opened up its Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for private launches. Ji Duo, the center's party chief, stated that “carrying out launches of privately made rockets is what a world-class space center is supposed to do, and Jiuquan is willing to put privately funded missions on its launch agenda.” Critically, under that strategy, Chinese investment firms are also looking to aggressively invest in US private space companies. For instance, China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd has invested in Moon Express, one of the companies chosen by NASA for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Tencent also invested in Planetary Resources (now acquired by ConsenSys, Inc.) and Satelogic, an Argentinian company specializing in satellite imagery. NanoRacks, another US private space company, established a commercial partnership with Kuang-Chi Science LTD in 2018. China established its first overseas satellite ground station in Kiruna, Sweden, that year as well.

Consequently, as is advised by Sun Tzu, to build a comprehensive context for the moral legitimacy of your power, President Xi and the CPC has worked to build alliance structures, signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs), and offered to collaborate on lunar missions with other countries. This is part of Xi’s vision of creating a world order where China not only has capacity but also legitimacy as the country that champions a peaceful and harmonious world order.

China even invited India, a peer competitor in Asia in space, to become part of its lunar exploration program and research base plans by 2036.

One such initiative is the Spatial Information Corridor, where China is offering its Beidou Navigation System to the world, especially to the 70 member countries of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Categorically pitched within the United Nations agenda for making the world a better place, China has offered its space capacity as a force multiplier for a world free of poverty, backed by peace, justice, freedoms, and strong institutions.

This perspective has been vindicated by none other than the United Nations Office on Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) Director, Simonetta Di Pippo. China and UNOOSA signed an MoU that called for applications from UN member states to be part of China’s permanent space station. China’s BRI initiative has been hailed by the African Union and dubbed the Marshall Plan, without a war. Recently, China, in its quest for outer space resources, signed an MoU with Luxembourg and established its deep space exploration unit in the Grand Duchy, primarily to take advantage of Luxembourg’s legislation on space resources. Consequently, China hailed Luxembourg’s entry into its BRI initiative in March, following which the Bank of China chose Luxembourg to list its $500 million BRI bond.

China even invited India, a peer competitor in Asia in space, to become part of its lunar exploration program and research base plans by 2036. This came right after India successfully launched the Chandrayaan-2 mission to the South Pole of the Moon. Earlier in June, China, along with UNOOSA, selected a joint Indian Institute of Technology-University de Bruxelles experiment project, among six others, to conduct experiments on the Chinese Space Station (CSS). India has however announced that it will build its own space station by 2030 and conducted an ASAT test, Mission Shakti, this year vis-à-vis China’s growing counter-space capacities.


What China has achieved under Xi are clear demonstrations of international legitimacy and the construction of a narrative that its space activities will lead to global freedom and economic development. This is a rather remarkable achievement, coming from a CPC regime that is brutal to internal dissidents and tolerates no dissent. President Xi, in a speech to the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), categorically stated that loyalty to the CPC comes above everything else. This loyalty was reiterated by other Chinese state officials as well as Chinese media. And there are dire consequences for those who fail in demonstrating that loyalty.

The example of Hong Kong and the recent proposed extradition changes, under which Hong Kong residents could be tried in mainland China for certain crimes, should give one pause. The extradition principles goes against the legal and ratified commitments China made as per the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, based on which the UK handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997. The 1984 Declaration specifies “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication”. Wide ranging protests by Hong Kong residents have since ensued against it, with China now hinting about the use of its military against the protestors, if requested, by the Hong Kong government who proposed the extradition provisions in the first place. Yet, at the global arena, China is selling a narrative of liberty and freedom, backed by significant resources (billions of dollars in investments), that is succeeding to an extent that countries are buying into that Chinese dream; that China’s success in space will benefit all humankind and promote freedom.

The aim is to win the game for influence and power projection, especially in a domain like outer space without bloodshed so that a Chinese order is established and legitimized.

Sun Tzu’s advice to build into the five elements of power, imbibed with stratagem, is clearly a guiding principle for Xi. As the author of the book China Dream, Liu Mingfu, a retired PLA colonel, maintains, as per Sun Tzu’s guidance, the breakout of war is the breakdown of strategy and demonstrates civilizational demise. To win a war by stratagem, without bloodshed, is the way of a superior grand strategy and civilization. With a combination of economic resources, moral legitimacy, and by constituting standards of behavior, China is playing at a game for power, one with consequences for the global order. For with power comes influence, especially “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” Given that, we need to reflect on what the world would be like when we have self-appointed leaders for life, inspired by an authoritarian ideology that limits access to political representation within China, leading that global order; especially leaders who believe in the great destiny of their country to emerge as world leader and set standards of behavior for others.

That is a scenario that requires deep philosophical and strategic engagements, answers to which, I am afraid, will not be found by studying European history, warfare, and strategy, which currently dominates professional education courses in the West. For to avoid being caught by surprise, the need of the hour is to broaden your education and go beyond ethno-centric academic, intelligence, and policy discourses dominated by a Western-inspired international history and concepts. For instance, if one analyses how intelligence is gathered by the US ($59.9 billion intelligence budget in 2019), and its closest allies (the Five Eyes: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the concepts are informed by defunct Anglo-Saxon presumptions, and the method is technocratic, utilizing data-mining approaches to understand polities that are informed by a completely different strategic culture. I argue that the US strategic culture has yet to account for the fact that the world has changed, unable or simply unwilling to adapt to a new security environment. And as Klaus Knorr indicated in his chapter on “Threat Perception”, these results in several problems, least of which is the ambiguity of information gathered. More seriously, Knorr specified that ethno-centric predispositions resulted in problems of information gathering, intrinsic intellectual difficulties, and predetermined expectations and beliefs. For he said and I quote “Man, it seems, not only tends to be a prisoner of his perceptions, his perceptions also are slaves to his predispositions”.

For to truly understand complex strategic doctrines like The Art of War, one must move beyond clichés like “deception is the Chinese way of war” or conveniently locate it within realism, to actually grasping that Sun Tzu wrote a comprehensive text in which he asserted, “all warfare is based on deception”, and not just the Chinese way. Moreover, to him, deception was simply a tactic and not the end goal, in the larger “grand strategy for success,” which prioritizes a peacetime offensive. The aim is to win the game for influence and power projection, especially in a domain like outer space without bloodshed so that a Chinese order is established and legitimized. And that after all is President Xi Jinping’s space dream.

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