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Growing Chinese military and civil space capabilities create challenges and opportunities for the West. (credit: Xinhua)

What does the People’s Republic of China’s space program mean for Great Britain and the West?

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Despite its relative infancy operating in space, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become increasingly successful in launching satellites and has become the only country to successfully launch a space vehicle to the far side of the Moon (Jones, 2021). These achievements have consolidated the PRC’s reputation as a spacefaring nation. Speaking in 2021, President Xi Jinping stated “to explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream” (China’s Space Programme: A 2021 Perspective, 2022). President Xi goes on to highlight space’s centrality in the PRC’s culture and explains why it has increasingly received social and economic investment. The PRC’s space program conveys the belief that space is an opportunity to advance the human race, a belief that other nations undoubtedly share (China’s Space Programme: A 2021 Perspective, 2022). The white paper heralds the CNSA’s aspirations for the next five years and indicates its willingness to cooperate with the global community across many areas.

The PRC’s Space Program robustly declares its medium-term aspirations centered on its core mission and vision statements. It is a gap analysis that blends science, culture, and art to communicate a strategy for its advancement in space. It has benefitted from the rules-based international system to prosper and is now seeking to re-evaluate these rules to leverage further advantage. Great Britain and the West must acknowledge the growing power and influence of not only the PRC but the Indo-Pacific region. The PRC will challenge the modern hegemony, the USA, in outer space.

What is the PRC’s space program doing?

The CNSA, China’s equivalent of NASA, produced “China’s Space Programme: A 2021 Perspective.” The CNSA is a civilian organization that focuses on international engagement but plays no role in the PRC’s military space program; the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) runs its military program. Hence, the white paper does not allude to any military programs. It would be prudent to highlight that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pursues an aggressive strategy for Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) (US Department of State, 2020). The CCP’s strategy for optimizing military and civilian partnerships belies duplicitousness to any activity conducted on behalf of the PRC.

The CCP’s strategy for optimizing military and civilian partnerships belies duplicitousness to any activity conducted on behalf of the PRC.

Despite not providing a complete picture, the CNSA proposal is admirable in its aspirations for the human race. Although not identical, Israel has benefited significantly from its military-civil fusion and has become a technical superpower with one of the highest concentrations of startup companies per capita (“Sifted”, 2022). The PRC continues to pursue means of strategic deterrence and is reluctant to publicly discuss its military space program or negatively impact global stability (U.S. Department of Defense, 2022).

The white paper highlights that the space domain is essential to the PRC’s security and national interests. The employment of space capabilities for intelligence collection and C5ISRT (command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting) is a central mission of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) (Costello & McReynolds, 2019). Furthermore, since the First Gulf War, space has become a critical enabling domain for militaries. Understandably, the PRC seeks opportunities to degrade the USA’s freedom to operate in space. Not only will the PRC compete for a relatively finite resource that is becoming more congested and contested, but it can also threaten the USA’s command of the space domain. Should space become denied, the nation-state with the most considerable dependence on what space offers will suffer the most significant loss; in this case, that is the USA.

China hopes to cement its control of the Indo-Pacific (near-abroad) region and stifle the USA’s ability to operate freely (Zhou, 2022). The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is responsible for protecting and securing critical supply routes across the Indo-Pacific. An increasing PLAN presence and regional aggression, combined with increasingly assertive policies, is an ongoing attempt to dissuade the West from escalating regional competition to crisis or conflict while maintaining norms that favor the PRC’s aggressive decision-making.

Space assets facilitate regional control across expansive geographic areas through situational awareness (SA). This SA will enable the PRC to monitor, track, and ultimately target its adversaries and regional competitors. Enhanced SA will also support the PLA’s information dominance and means of conducting information warfare. The coordinated employment of space, cyber, and electronic warfare as strategic weapons will enable the PLA to “paralyze the enemy’s operational system of systems’’ and “sabotage the enemy’s war command system of systems’’ (Costello & McReynolds, 2019) in the initial stages of a conflict while protecting its own (Xiaosong, 2013). The PLA shapes its campaign planning around not only the protection of its critical infrastructure but also denying its adversaries access to their most significant dependencies. The United States’ heavy dependence on space-based capabilities makes its space platforms a target for disruption, degradation, and denial. These actions will be uncharacteristically effective at hampering the USA’s ability to operate in the Indo-Pacific where its Sea Lines of Communication (SLoC) are already comparatively stretched.

The PRC also embraces “gray-zone” operations to pursue security objectives without escalating competition to conflict. An example is the PRC’s maritime actors and Distant-Water Fishing Fleets (DWF), which have extended the PRC’s geographic ownership (Houlden, Romaniuk, & Hong, 2021). Observation of the Earth from space allowed the PRC to identify potential islands that the DWF could ratify before claiming. The PRC can then claim an economic exclusion zone contesting regional actors, regulate maritime navigation, and establish legal rights of sovereignty (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1994). Space power is as much a political tool as it is a military tool.

As the MCF framework suggests, the civilian and commercial sectors will amplify any military efforts. The West is not growing its capabilities as rapidly as the PRC as it lacks this catalyzed ecosystem.

The Space Program also indicates the PRC’s aspiration for a global consensus on space governance and its peaceful use. A peaceful outer space does not exclude its use for security; however, it does indicate that the PRC hopes to maintain current space norms regarding space militarization and weaponization. This fundamentally undermines the USA and fails to acknowledge that despite pursuing a peaceful space, these adversaries are developing anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities (National Air and Space Intelligence Centre, 2018). The PRC can present the case that the USA is destabilizing space as a peaceful domain due to its reluctance to adhere to treaties such as the UN’s Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) and the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), in particular, Article I, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects.

The CNSA releases a new space program every five years but does not provide any more granular timelines than this. The CNSA space program refers to the United Nations and the Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) 2030 targets signaling a holistic approach to space development upon which it aligns its milestones for progression.

What does the CNSA space program mean for Great Britain?

Great Britain can learn from the PRC’s ability to take a military problem; rapidly identify, procure, or develop; and operationalize an emerging technology for a solution. Innovation-driven development must take advantage of the brightest minds. As the MCF framework suggests, the civilian and commercial sectors will amplify any military efforts. The West is not growing its capabilities as rapidly as the PRC as it lacks this catalyzed ecosystem (Bender, 2021; Downer, 2021). It is possible that this elicits a problem with the “process” as opposed to that with people or technology, and that the UK could benefit from collaboration with the PRC to understand more effective ways of working to expedite the delivery of capabilities. Research and commercial partnerships are preferable and military engagements or joint exercises will not be feasible due to the geopolitical ramifications. Exploration, launching, and space debris management are all areas that collaboration will be less contentious. It should be noted that any activity in space can become contentious if exploited by a state. Space exploration may create more efficient thrusters and energy systems as we extend our search to the stars. It may answer questions on alien life and the chemistry of our solar system and drive technological advancements.

The space industry is at a point of historic growth. With increasingly cheap manufacturing and deployment options, and more capable technologies, low Earth orbit (LEO) small satellite constellation deployments are increasing the number of state and commercial actors in space. The amount of debris in outer space is rising, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to track and monitor the space objects produced. Debris management and removal could improve remote robotics and ensure the use of space is secure and sustainable. Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty is dated and pertains to the idea that a state maintains ownership of anything it has launched into outer space despite whether or not it controls it (UNOOSA, 2021). While this may be useful to hold a space actor to account, it is not conducive to maintaining sustainability in outer space. Space debris must have supporting legislation produced to ensure that all space actors are responsible for a sustainable space. Extending the existing UNOOSA guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space to become a legal basis for international law is an option. Regardless, the legal framework governing outer space needs updating.

Improved launching technologies will make space more accessible and help develop global infrastructure. Launch technologies are analogous and synergistic with space exploration, infrastructure and the commercialization of space (Troutman et al., 2002). Decreasing launch costs will increase the material transported to space and pave the way for new infrastructure. Space-based infrastructure could revolutionize our ability to conduct activity in outer space and will be economically essential should the number of platforms in space continue to grow. The structures and facilities that enable a space-based society to function and grow will be dependent upon the means of launching material into space. Adequate policy and legal frameworks must be developed to ensure success (Zubko, 2019). Great Britain can take a more active role in civil space infrastructure governance and manufacturing.

While out of the scope of this article, the weaponization of space, vice its militarization, would be an area for further research. The relationships between the “elite” spacefaring community, the normalization of weapons hosting in space, and space safeguarding and governance are areas of interest. Space can and should remain available for directing (tracking and targeting) weapon systems. Tracking, targeting, and monitoring satellites dispel the fog of war and reduce the likelihood of collateral damage. Robust space governance will establish acceptable norms of behavior and will be the means that nations can address issues with cooperation and negotiation or seek support from a selected executive committee. By reducing legal ambiguity and establishing rules-based order for the space domain, space actors will face legal or political consequences on Earth.

Much like aircraft and radar changed maritime surveillance, space assets have been a similarly dramatic development for Earth surveillance. Aircraft revolutionized ocean surveillance by extending a vessel’s area of vision and, in a sense, becoming an “observational blockade” (deterrence by potential detection). The subsequent development of radars enabled the near-real-time awareness of a broad area facilitating much better, local area situational awareness (Friedman, 2009). Space assets enable surveillance of large areas of the globe thereby deterring and disrupting any discreet activity. The West and the PRC exploit these capabilities to facilitate near-real-time understanding of both friendly and enemy force activity. With regards to the PRC’s near-abroad, this SA will enable the PLAN to leverage its geographic advantage against the West by developing a better intelligence picture and shortening its OODA (observe, orientate, decide, act) loop. This more complete intelligence picture will enable the PRC to influence and plan against the West’s critical regional dependencies such as SLoCs, ports, and logistics hubs. A shorter OODA loop offers an operational advantage by having forces where they are needed sooner to achieve an effect.

Advancing imagery and technical surveillance capabilities means that the West must become comfortable operating overtly or have a robust means of deceiving and misdirecting the PLA’s efforts to undermine regional activity. This is a critical military consideration and any action in the Indo-Pacific region will stretch and challenge command, control, and logistics. It is also important to note that submarines are historically covert or clandestine means of warfare. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is enabled by satellite capabilities through acoustic, non-acoustic, chemical, and thermal tracking and demonstrates that previously hidden activities are illuminated (“Submarine Detection and Monitoring”, 2021; Friedman, 2000).

By reducing legal ambiguity and establishing rules-based order for the space domain, space actors will face legal or political consequences on Earth.

General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front during World War I, stated that “infantry wins battles, logistics win wars” (Lee, 2017). The logistical advantage heavily lies in favor of the PRC because of geography and regional geopolitical influence. To ensure the potential for the West’s regional military success, this must be mitigated. While space assets cannot directly support logistics, they are sensors and enable support command, control, and SA. Space-derived data can aid decision-making. Likewise, positioning, routes, congestion, and weather conditions can enrich an intelligence picture. Benign data can become indicators and warnings, or can be aggregated to reveal a previously obfuscated activity; a previously unnoticed action may belie something worth investigating. A reliable understanding of PRC regional activities and, thereby, likely priorities can ascertain where the West can focus its efforts to maximise military and PESTLE (political, economic, sociological, technological, legal, and environmental) success. A whole-force understanding and approach, ideally across NATO and the West, can further enhance potential operational and strategic success. This highlights the criticality of having information and intelligence in compatible forms, presented with a suitable system that can handle mass data input without saturation, to enable data fusion and a complete intelligence picture. The Chinese do this very well, as represented by the network-centricity and “integratedness” of their systems.

Space presents several opportunities for logistics. One significant opportunity may be space-deployed material. Material deployed to or from space could be rapidly delivered across the globe and reduce the constraint of access, forward-deployed material, or maintaining warm logistics sites globally (Wade, 2020). Independence of access and resourcing will give commanders additional time for decision-making, options for effect, and discreet activity. Resupply can be initiated and deployed using spacefaring vehicles or placed into orbit to loiter until deployment within its orbital band geographical footprint. Cargo could be hosted for a period of time or transit through space if a suitable environment for the material is maintained. Space resupply can take advantage of the freedom of space, obfuscate a military’s focus, and rapidly supply forces. Space-enabled logistics will be a military requirement where discretion is essential. Research on reentry vehicles, transport vehicles, and storage in space is needed.

The PRC’s BeiDou satellite system is an alternative global navigation satellite system (GNSS) to the USA’s GPS. Given the success of its BeiDou system, China now has a firmer hold of global infrastructure. The CCP’s MCF ideology will ensure that the PRC has an increasing economic advantage over other western GNSS (Levesque, 2021). There is also a military advantage associated with a sovereign GNSS. China can now independently manage its tracking and targeting services without the US being able to remove access (McDevitt, 2020). The PRC has a vision for an interconnected world: space infrastructure will be central to delivering this vision. It will compete and challenge other space actors for space market advantage. Western organizations must equally compete for a substantial market share and view the growing space industry as an entrepreneurial opportunity. The PRC already has an organizational advantage through its MCF fusion and authoritarian political system. To concede further market advantage will have ramifications that will not be immediately clear but may manifest technological advantage for the PRC in the future. This cascade of science, technology, and economic advantage will become a PRC military advantage. Adjunct to this, the PRC’S MCF has begun establishing industrial zones in which its defense enterprises will anchor a surrounding technology ecosystem. The aspiration is to encourage military-civil integration and innovation; it indicates that Xi’s MCF framework has incorporated military and economic mobilization requirements (Levesque, 2021).


The PRC is a rapidly advancing space actor. Comparative advancement creates leadership opportunities as other less developed states seek technical and ethical guidance as well as observe the behaviors more capable states consider acceptable; leading by example. The UK and the West must encourage space governance and space actor alignment in concert with the PRC to maintain the freedom of access to space and its benefits to Earth. The legal and policy framework of space must mature; a union between the spacefaring elites will be a powerful driving force for this. While it will remain challenging for these communities to reach military agreements, establishing acceptable norms of behavior is essential, particularly that of the civil and commercial sectors. Space governance must encourage entrepreneurship yet maintain security and peace for all. The oversight of military activity in space will remain fractious. It should be considered unethical and not supported by global leaders to host weapons in space and sustainable space behaviors must be encouraged. In particular, leaders must avoid the escalation of current norms that have permitted the direction of weapons by space systems. By extension, behavior that risks access to space and its opportunities must be avoided.

The UK can pursue engagement across people, processes, and technology. Closer alignment of people, training, instruction, and academia can foster improved cultural understanding and familiarity. People can dispel common myths and assumptions, elicit better contextual understanding, and cement positive relationships between the two countries or organizations that espouse collaboration, such as the CNSA. Academic partnerships will need careful consideration. The MCF framework ensures innovation will result in a military advantage. Israel is an excellent example of a state that benefits from an unofficial military-civil fusion. While the UK can learn from other nations, engagement with the PRC will have benefits that are difficult to qualify or quantify but will undoubtedly advance the space sector. An engagement strategy can tangibly demonstrate that space is for peaceful use despite the PRC and the West’s military differences. Should spacefaring states collaborate on projects that will benefit the human race, geopolitical tensions in space may be reduced. With governance and technological constraints, space debris collection and removal may be this opportunity.

Without sight of the PLAN Space Strategy, it would be difficult to argue its impacts on the UK. The PRC aspires to use its economy and military in concert to deliver on CCP strategic objectives. Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” hopes for the PRC to be fully developed and modernized by 2049, the centenary of the CCP’s founding (Kuhn, 2013). Strategic development goals enable a country to manage outcomes, set commitments, and benchmark achieving its objectives. The PRC has a significant advantage in pursuing its ambitions compared to the West. The UK and the West must produce a coherent and collaborative counter-PRC strategy that will be unperturbed by government terms, changes of office, or geopolitical situations, notwithstanding that with the PRC. Without a coherent cross-government approach, the PRC will continue to leverage its advantages and rapidly grow comparatively to the West. Militarily, this strategy must focus on gray-zone operations and avoid direct conflict with the PRC. There is an opportunity to conduct collection operations that may elicit intelligence for understanding or subsequent effects (Sharpe, 2022). The potential effects may ensure that any military action the PRC undergoes may be too costly and prevent escalation.


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