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deterrence of china

Psychology of Deterrence in Sino-U.S. Space Relations

Illustrations © James Vaughan, and used by permission. More of his work can be found here:

By Christopher Fabian


Failure to recognize the effects of unmotivated biases and the unwillingness to correct cultural misunderstandings amplify a structural security dilemma and create crisis instability in Sino-U.S. relations. The United States misunderstands China’s risk tolerance, the link between Chinese sovereignty and spacepower, and the impact of space dominance doctrine on core Chinese interests. The United States also overestimates its own subjective security demands and will respond to maintain space dominance at all costs. Efforts to maintain deterrence and remain the dominant spacepower will likely trigger counterbalancing as China attempts to maintain its access to space. Crisis mismanagement is likely due to cultural misunderstanding especially as the arms race accelerates and tensions build. This may result in uncontrolled escalation given that Sino-U.S. space relations: lack a system of mutual restraint; occur within a space law regime that fails to keep pace with a rapidly changing space environment; and have techno-environmental factors that create deterrence instability. To prevent this, the United States must formulate an actor-specific strategy for China that establishes deterrence stability through non-escalatory and asymmetric means. This must be coupled with a reexamination of U.S. security requirements in light of an evolving world order.



In the wake of World War II, the United States executed a well-designed competitive strategy for counterbalancing the Soviet Union.[1] During the Cold War, space strategy and national strategy were closely linked, combining soft and hard power initiatives in service of clear defined objectives.[2] American strategic planners had the luxury of operating in a bipolar environment where multi-order effects could be accounted for in the context of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. balance of power. In the post-Cold War era, the rise of regionally influential actors, in particular China, has resulted in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment.[3] In this environment, U.S. strategy must be more effective if it is to sustain the vast web of security commitments viewed as vital to U.S. national interest. U.S. space strategy has failed to adapt to this new paradigm since the end of the Cold War. The emergence of China as a near-peer competitor demands actor-specific considerations. Strategists must question whether assumptions about restraint and deterrence made during the Cold War are relevant to the Sino-U.S. relationship; account for significant differences between Soviet and Chinese strategic cultures; examine the psychology of deterrence in this evolving relationship; and re-examine subjective security demands for a changing geopolitical and technological environment. Thomas Mahnken asserts “There has been as yet no attempt to understand Chinese strategic culture, decision-making, strategy, operational art, and science and technology on the scale of the effort to understand the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”[4] As Henry Kissinger said, “We’re not good at it [relations with China], because we don’t understand their history and culture.”[5] Nowhere are these strategic disconnects more apparent than in Sino-U.S. space competition.[6]

China the Usurper?

Prospect theory details how choices made between risk-laden outcomes result in unexpected courses of action.[7] Risk averse behavior results when one is in a good position relative to a set reference point while risk seeking behavior results from occupying a relatively poor position.[8] In international relations, prospect theory describes a state’s general risk taking behavior with a reference point set by the relative power status based on prior standing or aspirational goals.[9] Thus, status quo powers generally act conservatively as not to risk their position of advantage; rising powers are likely to choose risky, but high payoff strategies in an attempt to overturn an unfavorable status quo.[10]

The idea of a cohesive Chinese state has existed for millennia. Its protected geography, unique cultural unity, and economic dominance gave rise to the idea of China as the “Middle Kingdom;” the world’s preeminent cultural power convinced of its centrality.[11] However, the First Opium War occurring between 1839 and 1949 ushered in a 110-year era of European intervention that shattered the idea of China’s centrality and forced it to accept a world order fundamentally incompatible with its historic identity.[12] China remains far from its pre-1839 reference point despite the meteoric return to economic preeminence and re-stabilized internal hierarchy due to the reforms of Deng Xiaoping.[13] A new nationalist narrative has emerged that is less about celebrating China’s strength and more about commemorating its weakness; it is based on restoring China as a nation worthy of the designator “Middle Kingdom” and reclaiming China’s rightful place in the international system.[14] China is often portrayed as having suffered three losses during the Century of Humiliation: a loss of territory, a loss of control over its internal and external environment, and a loss of international standing and dignity.[15] The Chinese Communist Party understands that its mandate is to correct these injustices and build a prosperous society.[16] As a rising power whose global standing is still below its historical benchmark, China is incentivized to continue its risk taking in order to upset the unfavorable status quo and supplant the United States as a regional hegemon.

General Secretary Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” is a recognition of this mandate.[17] Xi linked a “space dream” as a means of fulfilling the “China Dream” and expressed the aspiration to become a space giant.[18] This view was parroted in a 2016 Chinese government white paper on China’s space activities.[19] Accomplishing a series of ambitious space exploration milestones and continuing to develop China’s space industry serve to legitimize China as Asia’s science and technology leader, thus demonstrating that it can compete with the United States and Russia on the world stage, attract young engineering talent, and spur China’s high technology industry.[20]

Space also presents China with an opportunity to pursue revolutionary change in three ways. First, China plans to extend its policies of resource nationalism in order to secure vital space based resources and disrupt the global economy. Second, achieving space milestones will allow China to usurp the existing space law regime and reform it to reflect Chinese national interests. Third, China will use emerging space technologies to bring about a revolution in military affairs, supplanting the United States as East Asia’s military hegemon.

Resource Nationalism

Resource nationalism is a state-led effort to exhibit mercantile control of natural resources with the expressed intent of benefiting one’s own geoeconomic position. This is driven by increased resource demand due to growing populations and industries, uneven distribution of resources, and an uncertain global trade environment.[21] China engages in the three traditional types of resource nationalism: producer country, consumer country, and investor country resource nationalism.[22] China’s control of internal resources as the world’s largest mining industry; its aggressive resource extraction policies in Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic; and its use of the sovereign wealth fund to exert economic influence make it the top purveyor resource nationalism around the globe.[23] Additionally, China’s solidarity with low-income and/or formally colonized countries produces resource nationalism with Chinese characteristics that deviate from international norms.[24] Its business model is one where resource extraction rights are bartered directly for the construction of infrastructure rather than the traditional “no strings attached” approach to development.[25] China’s business-like approach is often considered a welcome contrast to the traditional model preferred by the United States.[26]

As Earth-based resources become scarce and as new technological advances make space mining more economically feasible, space may become a new frontier for resource nationalism and a possible resource scramble.[27] For example, given heavy initial investment and two decades to establish an asteroid mining infrastructure, it is possible to make a lucrative profit and to significantly impact the world’s supply of platinum group metals (PGMs).[28] Effective space mining operations from even a single asteroid could have disruptive effects on the global iron, nickel, PGM, and precious metal economies, especially if that supply is controlled by a single state.[29] This is attractive to the Chinese who spend incredible political and economic capital to secure access to the international PGM market.[30]

Further, the development of a lunar base could reduce the cost of asteroid mining and provide a cost-saving alternative to NASA’s Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture.[31] Establishing a lunar base, mining asteroids, and establishing a presence on Mars are three simultaneous, interrelated lines of effort that can yield massive prestige and material benefits. Given that China’s space science efforts are heavily biased toward exploring and exploiting natural resources in near-Earth objects and on the moon, its exploration and exploitation of space may mirror its patterns of resource nationalism on Earth.[32]

The New Space Law Regime

The current space law regime was designed to preserve a status quo favorable to the United States and Soviet Union, and maintain deterrent stability among the great powers during the Cold War.[33] The conditions that led to the creation of this regime are largely gone and it is evolving to address the rapidly expanding needs of the international community in the 21st Century.[34] Some say that the evolution of the space law regime is not happening fast enough to address the growth of space resource utilization by both state and commercial entities.[35] For example, without clear agreement as to the meaning and scope of the non-appropriation principle, states almost certainly will use customary international law to reshape the interpretation of Article II of the OST, which states, “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”[36] Therefore, achieving space milestones, such as being the first to commercially mine an asteroid, not only confers prestige benefits or offers monetary gain; it allows for disproportionate influence in shaping customary international law regarding resource utilization in space.

China has demonstrated that it is willing to work within the framework of the existing international space law regime to further its strategic objectives. A 2016 Chinese government white paper stated the desire for cooperation and peaceful development, and China has been an important participant in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and in the Conference on Disarmament.[37] China and Russia jointly submitted the Draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) to bring the letter of international law more in line with the spirit of the OST and to revive debate over a treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).[38]

China’s willingness to interact with the current space law regime, however, can be attributed to the regime’s weakness rather than to representation of China’s current interests. As an emergent space and technology power, China has the opportunity to shape international space laws and institutions to produce outcomes that are consistent with its long-term goals.[39] This approach will be particularly effective if China is the first to conduct in-situ resource utilization or space mining, or to develop a permanent settlement in space.[40]

Revolution in Military Affairs

China has substantially reorganized its research and development sector to produce disruptive defense technologies including quantum communications/computing and artificial intelligence.[41] The first nation to develop these technologies and integrate them into new space systems could render current military space systems obsolete. Shortly after publication of the 2015 white paper on China’s Military Strategy, a major organizational restructuring took place within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).[42] As a part of this restructuring, the Strategic Support Force was created.[43] The Strategic Support Force combines space, cyberspace, psychological, and electronic warfare into a unified force that conducts technology development, recruitment, and training for all three mission areas.[44] This reorganization supports the doctrine of system-versus-system, informationized warfare that China believes is essential to a 21st century fight.[45] China is pursuing disruptive technological innovation and the organization necessary to implement said innovations; both of these elements are required to bring about a revolution in military affairs.[46]

An American Response?

As defined earlier, prospect theory may also be applied situationally. Leaders choose risky, but high-payoff, options in an attempt to recoup losses from a devolving, unstable position, or they may act conservatively when possessing a relatively secure position.[47] Despite being the status quo power, the United States may be pushed into risky behavior if it feels its strategic interests are threatened, calculates that its position of advantage in East Asia is disappearing, or senses disruption to the U.S.-centric world order. This transition from risk-averse to risk-seeking behavior increases the probability that the United States will double down on its deterrent threat, and attempt to counterbalance China’s rise.[48] There is a prevalent view among the Chinese that the United States will not allow China to rise peacefully.[49]

Taking Aim at China?

Sino-U.S. space cooperation, to the extent that it can build trust and increase transparency to reduce misperceptions, is necessary to diffusing the security dilemma. However, mistrust of China is responsible for a series of measures by the United States that has stymied efforts to expand space cooperation.[50] The first major blow to cooperative efforts between China and the United States occurred in the reactionary wake of the 1999 Cox Committee Report and the 1998 Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States.[51] Strengthened U.S. export controls resulted in China developing indigenous technologies, created a market for products free of restrictions under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations regime, and made a new generation of Chinese intellectuals resentful and suspicious of the United States.[52] Bilateral efforts in the wake of export control began producing civilian space cooperation until a 2011 U.S. law prevented Congressionally appropriated funds from being used by NASA or the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.”[53] This rendered Sino-U.S. civil space cooperation nearly nonexistent, and eliminated the possibility of Chinese participation with the International Space Station program, which they would have accepted.[54] Although these policies are the response to legitimate concerns about technology transfer and intellectual property theft, they can be seen as a targeted attempt to isolate and repress China’s space technology development and innovation base.[55]

Similarly, China views development of the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system as a capability designed to limit its freedom of action in the space and nuclear domains. China believed that a small nuclear arsenal was an adequate deterrent, different from the Cold War principle of mutually assured destruction.[56] Even a seemingly small BMD deployment aimed at “rogue states” was capable of destroying China’s limited retaliatory force, upsetting Sino-U.S. nuclear deterrence and leaving China susceptible to nuclear blackmail.[57] In 2001, the Bush Administration withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Although China was not party to the treaty, it viewed the ABM treaty as a cornerstone of its strategic stability.[58] Despite assertions that the proposed missile defense systems were not aimed at them, the Chinese opposed this action and suggested that an increase in its nuclear arsenal may be warranted.[59] Increasing the capability and scope of the BMD program could promote a dangerous escalatory dynamic in which China increases the mobility and number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs), pursues advanced reentry vehicle technology, puts ICBMs on alert, and revisits its limited deterrence posture.[60] There is evidence that some of these Chinese efforts are underway, but the U.S. BMD program charges ahead.[61]

The Chinese consider the development of U.S. BMD capabilities as an intentional first step toward space control.[62] BMD interceptors may be used as anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, used to counter an opponent’s ASAT weapons, and/or restrict an opponent’s access to space by creating an in-atmosphere chokepoint, thereby making them space control weapons.[63] As lines of effort, space control and BMD are increasingly interrelated—a fact that has caused space war and nuclear deterrence to become intertwined in the minds of Chinese strategists.[64] Progress by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency to field BMD capabilities, an abundance of American literature on space control via weaponization, and a renewed emphasis on space warfighting within the U.S. military may partially explain the strong counterbalance from China as it attempts to maintain its sovereignty vis-à-vis access to space.[65]

Preparing for the inevitable?

Availability leads to the tendency to overweight the effect of rare traumatic events in decision making.[66] This heuristic functions for two reasons. First, events with strong emotional intensity are easier to recall.[67] Second, associative strength can alter the judgment of an event’s frequency. This leads to the expectation that what has happened in the past will reoccur.[68] American strategists, whose academic education included frequent exposure to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and who can vividly recall Al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001, may be prone to overestimating the likelihood that a similar event may occur.[69] These preconceptions, formed through overgeneralized lessons learned from a biased history, limit imagination and empathy in ways that distort perception of threat.[70] As a result, strategists are likely to buy probabilistic insurance in the form of arms buildup and to overemphasize worst-case planning at the expense of planning for the most likely scenario.[71]

The United States is aware of its overreliance on space and the vulnerability that creates. A milestone analysis, the Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (colloquially known as “the Rumsfeld commission”) assesses that space should be a top national security priority and that conflict in the space domain is inevitable. It urges the military to undertake an organizational and technological revolution to maintain space superiority.[72] The report led to substantive policy changes under the Bush administration, created internal debate as to the role of space in future wars, emboldened a faction of space “separatists” within the U.S. Air Force, and undoubtedly left an impression on young officers who are now at the highest levels of the military and strategic decision-making.[73] The report embodies the U.S.’s hyperawareness, stating that, “[t]he United States is an attractive candidate for a ‘Space Pearl Harbor,’” and identifies China as a candidate for carrying out such an attack.[74] The evocative phrase “Space Pearl Harbor” was quickly co-opted by politicians, military leaders, and strategists who take a “when, not if” approach to space warfare.[75] For some, this worst-case scenario has displaced Cold War concerns over a disarming “bolt-out-of-the-blue” attack against U.S. nuclear forces.[76] The United States will take steps to mitigate the Chinese threat because China’s space activities are designed to take advantage of U.S. vulnerability and also because China is viewed as an imminent threat to space security.[77] China’s opaqueness exacerbates American paranoia, and reinforces the idea that a rising China threatens the global order and U.S. security.[78] As Chinese ambitions in cislunar space expand, the fear of Chinese militarization follow, or as Representative Doug Lamborn mused, “[m]aybe we need to match the 2024 Chinese goal [of a Moon base], so they don’t get a leg up on us when it comes to the security implications of them having a permanent presence on the Moon.”[79] The motivations for China’s expanding space presence are numerous and complex, but security concerns seem to be most available to American strategists.

The United States has thoroughly integrated the concepts of space warfighting, space superiority, and space control into national strategy to reduce its vulnerability.[80] The United States will likely avoid decisions that limit its own use of ASAT weapons due to their potential utility in a future Sino-U.S. conflict.[81] In 2008, the United States rejected the PPWT as fundamentally flawed, citing that, inter alia, it was aimed at reducing U.S. warfighting capability.[82] In 2014, the European Union proposed the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, but it failed to gain traction in the United States due to concerns that it would constrain space capabilities, including space-based missile defense interceptors and anti-satellite weapons.[83] In that same year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the non-binding Resolution 69/32 that advised against the first placement of weapons in space, with 126 in favor of the measure, 4 against (the United States again in the dissent), and 46 abstentions.[84] The U.S. decision to remain obstinate in the face of emerging international consensus will undoubtedly contribute to the fear of space weaponization, and cement the belief that the United States is looking for ways to constrain China’s rise.

The 2006 U.S. National Space Policy maintained the right to deny adversaries’ use of space if those capabilities are hostile to U.S. national interests.[85] This suggests an expansion of space control doctrine that arguably is past a natural right to self-defense.[86] This rhetoric, combined with technological and policy developments during the Bush administration, made the prospect of U.S. space domination seem incipient to Chinese strategists, and reignited their interest in space weaponization.[87] The United States reacted as talk of space weaponization accelerated in 2014.[88] In 2017, U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and other top Air Force leaders reasserted during testimony to Congress the idea of space as a warfighting domain, saying that the Air Force needed to maintain its capability regardless of consensus on international norms.[89] The Trump administration reinforced this by signing the Space Policy Directive-4 that helped usher in the creation of the United States Space Force on February 19, 2019, to establish a separate branch of the U.S. military, dedicated to space operations.[90] The President’s vision was realized on December 20, 2019 with the passage of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and the establishment of the U.S. Space Force.[91] The 2020 Defense Space Strategy confirmed that China and Russia are the target of recent developments by naming them as the most immediate and serious threats to U.S. space operations, and asserting the need to maintain space access despite rising challenges.[92] After performing even a cursory analysis of U.S. signaling, China likely concluded that the United States is preparing to fight a war in space, and will develop and operate the weapons required to do so.

The Downward Spiral

Preemption vs. Deterrence

Mirroring is the projection of one’s views, perception, values, and behaviors onto another social actor, including political opponents. This skews the perception of an opponent’s risk because one assumes said opponent will share their own risk profile.[93] Mirroring has resulted in many intelligence failures and miscalculations in international relations.[94] Unfortunately, the history of Sino-U.S. relations is fraught with mirroring-driven miscalculations due to the wide gap between U.S. and Chinese strategic cultures.

When the Chinese view of preemption [active defense] encounters the Western concept of deterrence, a vicious circle can result; acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the outside world; deterrent moves by the West may be interpreted in China as encirclement. The United States and China wrestled with this dilemma repeatedly during the Cold War; to some extent they have not yet found a way to transcend it… [In the case of Korea] a Chinese offensive was a preemptive strategy against dangers that had not yet materialized and based on judgements about ultimate American purposes toward China that were misapprehended.[95]

China has reasserted its right to active defense by expanding geographic control within the region, fielding a robust anti-access/area-denial capability specifically aimed at U.S. capabilities, and exploiting the erosion of U.S. political engagement.[96] The resurgence of active defense is particularly worrying because the United States could face unwarned, preemptive escalation if they cross an important, but ill-perceived Chinese strategic red lines during a period of heightened tensions.[97]

The space domain is a likely flash-point due to its importance in China’s active defense strategy in East Asia. Degrading U.S. space capabilities will disrupt the U.S. military’s “Find, Fix, Target, Track, Engage, and Assess” (F2T2EA) “kill chain,” and cripple its ability to conduct joint operations.[98] Also, space is an increasingly vital part of China’s over-the-horizon F2T2EA chain designed to hold U.S. naval and ground-based assets at risk within the first island chain.[99] If China is able to operationalize its vision of informationized warfare to use space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets for intermediate-range ballistic missile targeting, it then can establish a temporary zone of control that U.S. forces cannot penetrate without accepting disproportionate risk.[100] Therefore, China is incentivized to protect its own space assets for use in this reconnaissance-strike complex and to undertake counterspace operations to cripple the U.S. military’s kill chain in the early stages of a conflict. China likely will not accept U.S. space dominance, and freedom of action in space is essential to deterring U.S. intervention in East Asia in order to preserve Chinese sovereignty.[101]

Deterrence Without Provocation?

A system of mutual restraint emerges when opponents share a similar strategic culture and are highly invested in international norms that preserve the core interests of both parties. This results in adequate signaling before an attack occurs, strict rules of engagement, and tactics that reduce collateral damage.[102] Despite the United States and Soviet Union both possessing ASAT weapons during the Cold War, the probability of their use remained low because an escalation ladder was clearly defined, and a series of robust firebreaks arose to prevent missteps by both nations.[103] A similar system does not exist between the United States and China for several reasons.[104]

The lack of ritualization in space warfare between the United States and China increases the risk for misunderstanding. Chinese counterspace action intended to have a tactical or operational effect may cross American strategic red lines resulting in unintended escalation.[105] Worryingly, the PLA may not widely appreciate the implication of interfering with or destroying U.S. space capabilities that are critical to nuclear operations.[106][107] Such an attack could raise fears of a broader attack and provoke preemptive escalation by the United States.[108]

Asymmetry between the United States’ and China’s space capabilities produces deterrence instability. A symmetric, force-on-force encounter with the United States may be a difficult endeavor; however, China believes it can level the playing field if it can exploit perceived U.S. vulnerabilities in space.[109] China is incentivized to strike U.S. space systems, thereby exploiting U.S. overreliance on space in order to gain military advantage.[110] The PLA has contemplated the possibility that a first-strike on space assets could create a temporary advantage that it can leverage to accomplish limited strategic objectives and to deter U.S. counterattack as part of an active defense strategy, all within a limited scope of conflict.[111] Thus, as it currently stands, maintaining a significant U.S. advantage in space systems to apply towards conventional conflict may invite attack rather than deter it.

As Chinese spacepower grows, so does its vulnerability to attack from the United States.[112] If Chinese strategists understand their vulnerability, it may heighten their awareness of the high costs of conflict with the United States, reinforcing mutual deterrence.[113] However, in the meantime, the United States will likely fall into three traps in its efforts to deter Chinese aggression. First, the lack of offense-defense distinguishability for space systems makes it difficult to determine whether a cooperative or competitive strategy is optimal.[114] Distinguishability is further confounded by the inherent dual-use of many space technologies; this makes it difficult to discern between a technology’s civilian or military utility.[115] In this environment, offense-defense distinguishability depends on observing how a capability is implemented rather than on an analysis of the underlying technology.[116] Therefore, developing defensive capabilities may be perceived as a threat to the space assets of an opponent, regardless of intended purpose.[117] If the United States responds in-kind to recent Russian or Chinese technology demonstrations in order to show that it is not defenseless against potential threats, these countries will recognize such a system’s offensive potential and may accelerate their own programs as a result.[118]

Second, an offense dominant environment produces pressure to build offensive weapons and incentivizes pre-emption.[119] This has a destabilizing effect in both the short and long terms by heightening the fear of surprise attack during international crisis and by incentivizing arms racing.[120] It is widely believed that space is currently offense dominant.[121] Satellites are fragile systems that move in stable orbits with no geographic cover, making them vulnerable to attack.[122] The United States’ over-reliance on space support for conventional warfighting means that an attack on high-value, low-density space systems at the outset of a conflict may offer a substantial warfighting benefit and produce first-mover advantage.[123] It is possible for the United States to deny probable gains to China by fielding select defensive capabilities and pursuing system architectures that do not fall prey to the offense-defense distinguishability trap. These include hardening satellite components, employing anti-jamming techniques, employing quick-response launch vehicles to replenish constellations, disaggregation, improving maneuverability, or employing active countermeasures.[124] However, many of these methods are costly and technically complex, while ASAT systems are comparatively cheaper and simpler.[125] Therefore, China can maintain a space “fleet in being” by operationalizing a small number of cheap and easy-to produce offensive weapons. This may induce the United States to pursue costly, inefficient denial based strategies in order to simultaneously defend its space assets and maintain stability.[126]

Third, cost-imposing deterrent measures are likely to have a problem with proportionality and credibility. The threat of conventional terrestrial military action by the United States to deter an attack on space assets lacks proportionality due to the risk of casualties, collateral damage, and horizontal escalation.[127] A tit-for-tat strategy along a clearly defined escalation ladder using any type of space weapon lacks credibility because the United States is far more reliant on space systems than China. This overreliance results in a large vulnerability gap between the U.S. and Chinese space enterprises.[128] As an expeditionary military power with a post-industrialized economy, the United States loses more in the event of a space war. This asymmetry is amplified in a Taiwan, South China Sea, or East China Sea conflict where the United States must rely on space assets to support an expeditionary force. In the same scenario, China is less reliant on space assets because of access to continental based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets. In 2008, the United States shot down one of its own satellites with a modified Aegis system.[129] However, if such a system were to be operationalized, it would not represent a credible means of deterrence because of the deleterious impact such weapons have on the space environment.[130] The United States must seek first-strike stability to protect its national interests and to preserve the safety of the space environment until a strong system of mutual deterrence emerges. However, this must be done by developing credible, proportional, and, most importantly, non-escalatory deterrence through asymmetric means.

Moving Forward

The evolving world order does not demand cooperation between the United States and China, nor does it necessitate dividing into separate power blocs where the United States undermines China’s rise. Rather, there is room for a competitive relationship that redefines a shared world order while preserving the core interests of both parties.[131] However, the current pattern of factionalism will compel the creation of competing world orders. In the absence of common goals and agreed rules of restraint, institutionalized rivalry is likely to escalate beyond the calculation and intentions of its advocates. The penalties of failure could be drastic and perhaps irrevocable in an era in which unprecedented offensive capabilities and intrusive technologies multiply.[132]

U.S. decisionmakers must account for psychological and cultural factors currently present in the Sino-U.S. relationship. This will improve crisis management in a complex, competitive environment and reduce the chance of strategic miscalculation. Openness and exchange among scientific, policymaking, and military communities must be encouraged to build a shared and holistic perspective. Exchange must be accompanied by the knowledge that space represents the ultimate high ground and that space dominance is the ultimate encirclement that threatens Chinese sovereignty.

U.S. decisionmakers must pursue deterrence stability with the understanding that many of the most straightforward, conventional deterrence options contribute to crisis instability and deepen the security dilemma. The rapid growth of China’s economy, development of high technology industry, and military modernization indicate that symmetry with U.S. space capabilities may only be decades away. U.S. decisionmakers must question whether gaining a temporary first-mover advantage is worth the risk of inviting long-term challenge to its space superiority. They must reassess the long-term economic and political cost of maintaining space dominance versus accepting a measured level of risk as China’s space capabilities grow. Maintaining space dominance through dedicated acquisitions reform, accelerated investment in science and technology, and concerted spacepower theory and doctrine development may be possible, but the organizational and financial cost will be exceedingly high.

U.S. decisionmakers must either muster the political and financial support to bear that cost, or they must undergo a rigorous appraisal of their long-term strategy in order to account for a peer competitor. They also must consider building a mutually beneficial space law regime; a regime that will sacrifice some U.S. freedom of action, but enhances stability and certainty while moreover preserving the space environment. Whatever groundwork is laid during the next decade will define the context of Sino-U.S. space competition. The reestablishment of U.S. Space Command and the creation of the U.S. Space Force together provide an opportunity to re-examine space defense strategy and question the assumptions upon which it is founded.

Captain Chris Fabian, USSF,  is a Crew Commander in the 3rd Space Operations Squadron supporting the Delta 9 mission. This paper represents solely the author’s views and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any Department or Agency of the U.S. Government. If you have a different perspective, we’d like to hear from you.



  1. Graham Allison. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, 2017), 204.
  2. Joan Johnson-Freese. Space as a Strategic Asset (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 51-81; Walter McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 303-324; John Logsdon, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 119-142, 235-237.
  3. Rudyard Griffiths and Patrick Luciani, Does the 21st Century Belong to China? (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2011), 62.
  4. Thomas Mahnken, “Thinking About Competitive Strategies” in Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice ed. Thomas Mahnken (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 6.
  5. Henry Kissinger, interview by Jacob Heilbrunn, The National Interest, August 19, 2015,
  6. The tone of this article may appear to be overly-accommodating of China and hyper-critical of the United States. The author’s intent is not to legitimize China’s narrative of a responsible stakeholder put upon by a despotic hegemon. Rather, the intent is to play “devil’s advocate” and question whether the lessons learned from a successful competitive strategy executed during the Cold War are still valid in a drastically different strategic environment. It is not intended to justify China’s actions, but it is intended to spark discussion about the effectiveness of the U.S.’s China strategy and raise questions about the role of unmotivated biases in decision making.
  7. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk,” Econometrica 47, no. 2 (1979): 263,
  8. Kahneman and Tversky, 263-291; Rose McDermott, Risk Taking in International Politics: Prospect Theory in American Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 4,
  9. Bonnie Triezenberg, “Deterring Space War: An Exploratory Analysis Incorporating Prospect Theory into a Game Theoretic Model of Space Warfare,” Dissertation, (RAND Corporation, 2017), 26,; Jeffrey Berejikian, “A Cognitive Theory of Deterrence,” Journal of Peace Research 39, no. 2 (2002): 173,
  10. Triezenberg, 25-27; Berejikian, 173-178.
  11. Henry Kissinger, On China (London: Penguin Books, 2012), 10-11.
  12. William Callahan, “National Insecurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism,” Alternatives 29, no. 2 (2004): 207,; Kissinger, On China, 57; Testimony of Alison Kaufman, “China’s Rise: The Strategic Impact of Its Economic and Military Growth,” (Washington: House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, June 17, 2015), 2-6, Kaufman Testimony.
  13. Graham Allison. Destined for War: Can America, 3-24.
  14. Peter Gries, “A ‘Century of Humiliation’,” in China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 52-53,; Callahan, “National Insecurities,” 214; James Holmes, “The State of the U.S.-China Competition” in Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice ed. Thomas Mahnken (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 139-140. Holmes asserts that Beijing deliberately stokes nationalist furor in order to solidify support of its maritime expansionism.
  15. Testimony of Alison Kaufman, “The “Century of Humiliation” and China’s National Narratives,” (Washington: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on “China’s Narratives Regarding National Security Policy,” March 10, 2011), 140, Hearing Transcript.
  16. Kaufman, 139-140; Allison. Destined for War, 107-113; Joan Johnson Freese, The Chinese Space Program: A Mystery Within a Maze (Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1998), 23.
  17. Manoranjan Mohanty, “Xi Jinping and the ‘Chinese Dream’,” Economic and Political Weekly 48, no. 38 (2013), 34-35,
  18. Evgeniia Drozhashchikh, China’s National Space Program and the ‘China Dream’,” Astropolitics 16, no. 3 (2018), 175-176,; Unattributed, “Backgrounder: Xi Jingping’s Vision for China’s Space Development,” ed by Tian Shaohui, April 24, 2018,’s Vision; Unattributed, “Make China a Global Space Giant: Xi Jinping,” Economic Times, April 24, 2016,;
  19. White Paper, “China’s Space Activities 2016,” People’s Republic of China, Information Office of the State Council, December 27, 2016,
  20. Eric Seedhouse. The New Space Race: China vs. the United States (Chichester, UK: Praxis, 2010), 7; James Clay Moltz, Asia’s Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and International Risks (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 103; Max Grimard, “Will the US Remain the Real Leader of Human Space Exploration? A Comparative Assessment of Space Exploration Policies,” Acta Astronautica 75, June-July 2012 (2012): 1-14,; Dean Cheng, “Spacepower in China,” in Toward a Theory of Spacepower: Selected Essays, ed. Charles Lutes and Peter Hays (San Bernardino: National Defense University, 2017), 459-461; Kevin Pollpeter et al., China Dream, Space Dream: China’s Progress in Space Technologies and Implications for the United States (San Bernardino: National Defense University, 2017), 19,; Kazuto Suzuki, “The Contest for Leadership in East Asia: Japanese and Chinese Approaches to Outer Space,” Space Policy 29 (April 2013), 103-106,
  21. Horizon Scanning Programme Team, Resource Nationalism, Report, (London: Cabinet Office, December 2014), 2,; Halina Ward, Resource Nationalism and Sustainable Development: A Primer and Key Issues, Working Paper, (London: International Institute for Environment and Development), 5-6,
  22. Ward, 8-14.
  23. John Childs, “Geography and Resource Nationalism: A Critical Review and Reframing,” The Extractive Industries and Society 3, no. 2 (2016): 541,; Rob Wittman, China’s Active Defense Strategy and its Regional Impact, Testimony Before Congress, (Washington: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission), 10,; Anne-Marie Brady, “China’s Rise in Antartica?” Asian Survey 50, no. 4 (2010): 759-761,; Anne-Marie Brady, China’s Expanding Antarctic Interests: Implications for New Zealand, Policy Brief (Small States and the New Security Environment, 2017), 1-20,; Eleanor Albert, “China in Africa,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 12, 2017,; Joseph Biden et al., China’s Foreign Policy and ‘Soft Power’ in South America, Asia, and Africa, Report to Congress (Washington: Committee on Foreign Relations, April 2008), 4-5,; Stephen Burgess, The Effect Of China’s Scramble For Resources And African Resource Nationalism On The Supply Of Strategic Southern African Minerals: What Can The United States Do?, Research Paper, (USAF Academy: Institute for National Security Studies, 2010), 9-14 ,; Ward, Resource Nationalism and Sustainable Development, 11-42.
  24. Paul Collier, Implications of Changed International Conditions for EITI, Report, (London: Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative), 3-5,
  25. Collier, 3.
  26. Collier, 4; Stephen Burgess, U.S. Africa Command Changing Security Dynamics, and Perceptions of U.S. Africa Policy, Research Paper, (USAF Academy: Institute for National Security Studies, 2008), 12-13,
  27. Childs, “Geography and Resource Nationalism,” 543.
  28. Dana Andrews et al., “Defining a Successful Commercial Asteroid Mining Program,” Acta Astronautica 108, March-April 2015 (2015): 116-118,
  29. Shane Ross, Near-Earth Asteroid Mining, Report (Control and Dynamical Systems Space Industry Report, 2001), 5-6,
  30. Burgess, The Effect of China’s Scramble for Resources, 9-14.
  31. Hoki Ho et al., “Dnamic Modeling and Optimization for Space Logistics Using Time-Expanded Networks,” Acta Astronautica 105, no. 2 (2014): 442,; Ishimatsu Takuto, “Generalized Multicommodity Network Flow Model for the Earth–Moon–Mars Logistics System,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 53, no. 1 (2016): 25-38,
  32. Namrata Goswami, “China in Space: Ambitions and Possible Conflict.” Strategic Studies Quarterly 12, no. 1 (2018): 85-87,; John Bellflower, “The Influence of Law on Command of Space,” Air Force Law Review vol. 65 (2010), 138-143,
  33. Walter McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth, 178, 185, 189-191.
  34. Adam Quinn, “The New Age of Space Law: The Outer Space Treaty and the Weaponization of Space,” Minnesota Journal of International Law 17, no. 2 (Summer 2008), 487-502, Quinn argues that the OST’s breadth has undermined its strength, with too much language being left up for interpretation; that, with recent militarization of national space policy, the OST is no longer relevant to modern space policy; with technological advances, the OST is not capable of integrating the inevitable weaponization of space gracefully; and it lacks flexibility, which is important considering the rise of space privatization and proliferation of spacefaring nations; J.I. Gabrynowicz, “The ‘Province’ and ‘Heritage’ of Mankind Reconsidered: A New Beginning,” Conference Proceedings, (Houston: NASA, The Second Conference on Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century, 1992), 691-695,; The major spacefaring powers define res communis in space along the lines of “province of all mankind” outlined in the OST as opposed to the less developed countries’ definition of “common heritage of mankind” contained in the Moon Agreement. Province infers the sharing of knowledge rather than resources. The major spacefaring powers have held fast to this definition. The resolution of this dispute is particularly important given the possibility that space resource extraction and utilization may play a large role in the global economy in the coming decades. See: The Artemis Accords: Principles for Cooperation in the Civil Exploration and Use of the Moon, Mars, Comets and Asteroids for Peaceful Purposes, Artemis Accords.
  35. Virginie Blanchette-Seguin, “Reaching for the Moon: Mining in Outer Space,” Journal of International Law and Politics 49 (2017): 959-969,; Scot Anderson, Korey Christensen, and Julia La Manna, “The Development of Natural Resources in Outer Space,” Journal of Energy and Natural Resources Law (2018): 12-15,; Andrei Twibell, “Space Law: Legal Restraints on Commercialization and Development of Outer Space.” UMKC Law Review 589 (1996-1997), 610-619, 638-641, Twibell Commercialization; Zach Meyer, Private Commercialization of Space in an International Regime: A Proposal for a Space District, 30 Nw. J. Int’l L. & Bus. 241 (2010), 254-257, Meyer Space Law.
  36. Customary international law emerges when there is evidence of both general and consistent practice as well as the wide acceptance of said practice (“recognition as law” or opinio juris). Customary law can either amend, invalidate, or interpret existing legal obligations under a treaty. In the case of the relatively static OST juxtaposed with the rapidly changing space technology landscape, customary international law is an extremely important area of space law. If a state establishes a practice, that practice must be recognized by other spacefaring nations for it to become customary law. If China (or one of its commercial entities) is the first to establish a base on a celestial body and establishes practices that the United States does not agree with, the United States is left in the unenviable position of persistently objecting to China’s established state practice until such a time as it can establish its own state practice and then hope that other spacefaring nations recognize U.S. practice. Space Policy Directive-1 includes language that “the Secretary of State shall object to any attempt by any other state or international organization to treat the Moon Agreement as reflecting or otherwise expressing customary international law.” See: Abigail D. Pershing, Interpreting the Outer Space Treaty’s Non-Appropriation Principle: Customary International Law from 1967 to Today, 44 Yale J. Int’l L. (2019). Non-Appropriation; Ram Jakhu and Steven Freeland, The Relationship Between the Outer Space Treaty and Customary International Law (2016).; “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” opened for signature January 27, 1967, Space Law Treaties and Principles, Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, General Assembly resolution 2222 (XXI) (1967):; Donald Trump, Space Policy Directive-1, Reinvigorating America’s Human Space Exploration Program, (Washington: White House, 2018), SPD-1;
  37. White Paper, “China’s Space Activities 2016.” “China persists in combining independence and self-reliance with opening to the outside world and international cooperation. It actively engages in international exchanges and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, peaceful utilization, and inclusive development, striving to promote progress of space industry for mankind as a whole and its long-term sustainable development.”
  38. Jinyuan Su, “The Peaceful Purposes Principle in Outer Space and the Russia-China PPWT Proposal,” Space Policy 26, no. 2 (2010): 81-90,; Fabio Tronchetti, “Preventing the Weaponization of Outer Space: Is a Chinese-Russian-European Common Approach Possible?” Space Policy 27, no. 2 (2011): 84,; Hao Liu and Fabio Tronchetti, “United Nations Resolution 69/32 on the ‘No First Placement of Weapons in Space’: A Step Forward in the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space?” Space Policy 38, (2016), 66-67,; See Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Space (PAROS) Treaty,”
  39. Mikail Kalimuddin and David Anderson, “Soft Power in China’s Security Strategy,” Strategic Studies Quarterly vol. 12, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 135,
  40. Liu Hao and Fabio Tronchetti, “Should the Red Dragon Arise? Assessing Chinas Options Vis-à-vis the Enactment of a Domestic Space Resource Utilization Law,” Space Policy 39-40, May 2017 (2017), 10,
  41. Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington: Department of Defense, September 2020), 141-142,; Martin Giles, “The US and China are in a quantum arms race that will transform warfare,” MIT Technology Review, Jan 3, 2019,; Sandra Erwin, “Pentagon Sees Quantum Computing As Key Weapon For War In Space,” Space News, July 15, 2018,
  42. Pollpeter et al, “The Creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force and Its Implications for Chinese Military Space Operations,” Research Report (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2017), 14,
  43. Pollpeter et al, 1.
  44. John Costello and Joe McReynolds, China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era, ed. Phillip Saunders (Washington DC, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Press, October 2018), 1-55,
  45. Costello and McReynolds, 44-48.
  46. Max Boot, War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Gotham Books, 2006), 7-16.
  47. Rose McDermott , Risk Taking in International Politics, 11-12.
  48. Berejikian, “A Cognitive Theory of Deterrence,” 176-178.
  49. Cortez Cooper, China’s Active Defense Strategy and its Regional Impact, Testimony Before Congress, (Washington: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission), 20,
  50. Xiaodan Wu, “China and Space Security: How to Bridge the Gap Between its Stated and Perceived Intentions,” Space Policy Journal 33, no 1 (2015), 21,
  51. Joan Johnson –Freese, “China’s Space Ambitions: It’s Not All About the U.S.,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 15, no. 1 (2014): 142-143, The investigative thoroughness (or lack thereof) and conclusions of the Cox Report immediately drew criticism, see Alastair Johnston et al., “The Cox Committee Report: An Assessment,” Report, (Stanford CA: Center for International Security and Cooperation, 1999), Cox Rebuttal; Pollack, Jonathan D. “The Cox Report’s ‘Dirty Little Secret’.” Arms Control Today 29, no. 3 (1999): 26-35,; Spratt, John M. “Keep the Facts of the Cox Report in Perspective.” Arms Control Today 29, no. 3 (1999): 24-34,
  52. Gregory Kulacki, “US and China Need Contact, Not Cold War,” Nature 474 (2011): 444-445,
  53. Kulacki, 444.
  54. Nichole Kobie, “The Epic Tale of China’s Out of This World Plan for Space Domination,” Wired, September 29, 2018, ; Wu, “China and Space Security,” 28.
  55. Joan Johnson-Freese. Space as a Strategic Asset, 199-202; China recently expanded its own export control regulations, expanding its restriction on the transfer of space technology. China also asserted, “If any country or region abuses export control measures to endanger the national security and national interests of the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China may, based on the actual situation, take reciprocal measures against that country or region.” This assertion from China, combined with the U.S.’s growing fears of Chinese intellectual property theft, suggest the possibility of tit-for-tat escalatory isolationism rather than provide hope for Sino-U.S. space cooperation. See: Karen Sutter, China Issues New Export Control Law and Related Policies (Washington: Congressional Research Service, October 2020),
  56. Li Bin, The Impact of the U.S. NMD on the Chinese Nuclear Modernization. Beijing: Institute of Science and Public Affairs (Beijing: China Youth College for Political Science, Institute of Science and Public Affairs), 1; For more information on Chinese perspectives on deterrence see Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking ed. Li Bin and Tong Zhao (Washington: Carnegie Endownment for International Peace, Winter 2016)
  57. Bin, 5-8.
  58. Hui Zhang, “Chinese Perspectives on Space Weapons” in Russian and Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Plans in Space (Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008), 34, 41-45,
  59. Terence Neilan., “Bush Pulls Out of ABM Treaty,” New York Times, December 13, 2001,
  60. Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, “The Future of the Chinese Deterrent,” in China Security ed. Eric Hagt (Washington: China Security, Winter 2007), 66-70; Michael Chase and Evan Medeiros, “China’s Evolving Nuclear Calculus: Modernization and Doctrinal Debate,” in China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Emerging Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army ed. James Mulvenon and David Finkelstein (Alexandria: CAN Corporation, 2005), 152-153.
  61. Baohui Zhang, “The Modernization of Chinese Nuclear Forces and Its Impact on Sino-U.S. Relations,” Asian Affairs 34, no. 2 (2007): 90-93, David Larter, “U.S. Navy Destroyer Shoots Down an ICBM in Milestone Test,” Defense News, November 17, 2020,; Jen Judson, “Missile Defense Agency Director Lays Out Hurdles In Path To Layered Homeland Missile Defense,” Defense News, August 18, 2020,
  62. Zhang, “Chinese Perspectives on Space Weapons,” 34-35.
  63. Ashton Carter, “The Relationship of ASAT and BMD Systems,” Daedalus 114, no. 2 (1985): 173-176,; David Wright, Laura Grego, and Lisbeth Gronlund, The Physics of Space Security (Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005), 10-11, 155.
  64. Baohui Zhang, “The Security Dilemma in the U.S.-China Military Space Relationship: The Prospect for Arms Control,” Asian Survey 51, no. 2 (2011), 320,
  65. Bao Shixiu,”Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space”, in China Security ed. Eric Hagt (Washington: China Security, Winter 2007), 2-6; Zhang, 315-318; Joan Johnson-Freese, Heavenly Ambitions: America’s Quest to Dominate Space (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 1-7.
  66. Kahneman and Tversky, “Prospect Theory,” 280-284; Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 322-333; Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Judgment under Uncertainty: Hursitics and Biases,” Science 185, no. 4157 (1974): 1124-1130,
  67. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability,” Cognitive Psychology 5, no. 2 (1973): 207-211,
  68. Tversky and Kahneman, “Availability,” 223-228.
  69. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 137-145; Robert Jervis, Richard Nebow, and Janice Stein, Psychology and Deterrence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 22-24.
  70. Jervis, Nebow, and Stein, 18-22.
  71. Kahneman and Tversky, “Prospect Theory,” 269-271; Rose McDermott , Risk Taking in International Politics, 32.
  72. Rumsfeld et al. Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (Washington: Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, Committee on Armed Services of the U.S. House of Representatives, January 2001), 9-10,
  73. Benjamin Lambeth, “Mastering the Ultimate High Ground: Next Steps in the Military Uses of Space,” Monograph, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2003), 61-95,
  74. Rumsfeld et al., 13-14; The report specifically names China as trying to bring about RMA in space and calls out a conflict in the Taiwan Straits as one of three scenarios in which space vulnerabilities are worrisome.
  75. Mike Rogers, Chairman Rogers and Ranking Member Cooper Joint Statement on Fundamental Space Reform (Washington D.C: Office of Congressmen Mike Rogers, 2017); Jonathan Broder, “Why the Next Pearl Harbor Could Happen in Space,” Newsweek, May 04, 2016,; Sandra Erwin, “Air Force Chief Goldfein: ‘We’ll be fighting from space in a matter of years’,” SpaceNews, February 24, 2018,
  76. Michael Krepon, “Space and Nuclear Deterrence,” in Anti-Satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington: Stimson Center, 2013), 29.
  77. Wu, “China and Space Security,” 21.
  78. Kenneth Johnson, “China’s Strategic Culture: A Perspective for the United States,” Report, (Carlisle PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2009), 1-2,
  79. Theresa Hitchens, “Lamborn, Horn Pledge Bipartisan Support For Space,” Breaking Defense, February 11, 2020,
  80. Mark Hilborne, “China’s Rise in Space and US Policy Responses: A Collision Course?” Space Policy 29 (2013), 125-126,
  81. Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia,” International Security 41, no. 1 (Summer 2016), 44,; Theresa Hitchens and David Chen, “Forging a Sino-US ‘Grand Bargain’ in Space,” Space Policy 24 (2008), 128-129,
  82. Scott Pace, “Security in Space,” Space Policy 33 (2015), 52,
  83. Pace, 52-53.
  84. Liu and Tronchetti, “United Nations Resolution 69/32,” 64.
  85. Policy Directive, “U.S. National Space Policy,” The White House, August 31, 2006. Emphasis added.
  86. UN Charter Article 51 states, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” The Rumsfeld commission notes that, “by specifically extending the principles of the U.N. Charter to space, the Outer Space Treaty (Article III) provides for the right of individual and collective self-defense, including “anticipatory self-defense.” In addition, the non-interference principle established by space law treaties would be suspended among belligerents during a state of hostilities.” However, this broad interpretation is not widely agreed upon. For more discussion on self-defense and space law see: Brandon Hart, Anti-Satellite Weapons: Threats, Laws And The Uncertain Future Of Space, Thesis (Montreal Quebec: Institute of Air and Space Law, 2007), 75-79; Annette Froehlich, “The Right to (Anticipatory) Self-Defence in Outer Space to Reduce Space Debris,” in Space Security and Legal Aspects of Active Debris Removal ed. Annette Froehlich (Vienna: European Space Policy Institute, 2019), 29.; Anne-Sophie Martin, “State’s Right to Self-Defence in Outer Space A New Challenge for NATO’s Deterrence,” Journal of Joint Air Power Competence Centre 20 (Spring/Summer 2020): 30-34, Self-defence; Jackson Nyamuya Maogoto and Steven Freeland, “Space Weaponization and the United Nations Charter Regime on Force: A Thick Legal Fog or a Receding Mist, The International Lawyer 41, no. 4 (2007), 1098-1118,
  87. Jonathan Grandoff and Craig Eisendrath, United States-Master of Space? The U.S. Space Command’s “Vision for 2020”, (New York: Global Security Institute, 2005), 2-3,; Zhang, “The Security Dilemma in the U.S.-China Military Space Relationship”, 315-322; Shirley Kan, China’s Anti-Satellite Weapon Test, Report for Congress (Washington: Council on Foreign Relations, April 2007),
  88. Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment,” Report, (Washington: Secure World Foundation, 2020), 1-2,; Nirmal Ghosh, “U.S. Seeks to Stay Ahead of China, Russia in Space Race,” The Straits Times, December 11, 2017, The Obama Administration brought more moderate rhetoric by excluding inflammatory language in the 2010 National Space policy, recommending space arms control, suggesting TCBMs for space stability, as well as allowing Bush era technology programs expire. This policy was received very well in Asia, allowing the Obama administration to open high level strategic dialog about space cooperation with China and strengthen relations with East Asian allies. However, this type of engagement needs to be carried out over multiple administrations in order to be seen as credible by Chinese leadership. See: Laura Lopez, “Predicting an Arms Race in Space: Problematic Assumptions for Space Arms Control,” Astropolitics 10, no. 1 (2012), 49-52,; Marcia Smith, “President Obama’s National Space Policy: A Change in Tone and a Focus on Space Sustainability,” Space Policy 27 (2011), 20-23,; Jon Mariel Comparing the 2010 National Space Policy to the 2006 National Space Policy (Colorado Springs: Space Foundation); Warren Ferster, “Missile Defense Agency Retires NFIRE Satellites,” Space News, September 29, 2015,; Yasuhito Fukushima, “An Asian Perspective on the new US Space Policy: The Emphasis on International Cooperation and its Relevance to Asia,” Space Policy 27 (2011), 5-6,; John Logsdon, “Change and Continuity in U.S. Space Policy,” Space Policy 27 (2011), 2,
  89. Marcia Smith, “Top Air Force Officials: Space Now is a Warfighting Domain,” SpacePolicyOnline, May 17, 2017,
  90. Eric Mack, “Trump’s Space Force: Here’s What You Need to Know,” CNet, January 16, 2019,
  91. Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, “With the Stroke of a Pen, U.S. Space Force Becomes a Reality,” AF Public Affairs, December 20, 2019,
  92. Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Policy Doccument, Defense Space Strategy Summary, (Washington: Department of Defense, June 2020),
  93. Jonathan Renshon, “Mirroring Risk: The Cuban Missile Estimation,” Intelligence and National Security vol. 24, no. 3 (2009), 315-324,
  94. Renshon, 315-324.
  95. Kissinger, On China, 133-138, 340-348, 504. By sending the American fleet to the Taiwan strait to guarantee a divided China while simultaneously conducting military operations to support South Korea, President Truman ‘placed two stones on the Go board, both of which menaced China with the dreaded encirclement’. The administration drastically underestimated how amenable Mao would be to American troops controlling a traditional invasion route to mainland China. Similarly, China supported North Vietnam during the American’s Vietnam War less for ideological reasons and more because it was afraid of American encirclement. American control of Vietnam would have meant another base at the border of China in addition to Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Okinawa, and the Philippines. A quick glance at a map shows how continued American presence in Vietnam would have been the last piece of a near total encirclement.
  96. Oriana Mastro, China’s Active Defense Strategy and its Regional Impact, Testimony Before Congress, (Washington: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission), 1-6, Mastero Testimony; David Kearn, “Air-Sea Battle and China’s Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenge,” Orbis 58, no. 1 (November 2013), 133-136,
  97. Larry Wortzel, China’s Active Defense Strategy and its Regional Impact, Testimony Before Congress, (Washington: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission), 1-2, Wortzel Testimony.
  98. Jeffrey Caton, Impacts of Anti-Access/Area Denial Measures on Space Systems: Issues and Implications for Army and Joint Forces, Monograph (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2018), 89, 10,; Shaun Stuger, Space Based Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Contribution to Global Strike in 2035, Thesis (Maxwell AFB: Air War College, 2012), 4-7,; David Gompert and Phillip C. Saunders, Paradox of Power: Sino-American Strategic Restraint in an Age of Vulnerability (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2011), 100-101; David Kearn, “Air-Sea Battle and China’s Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenge,” 133-136,
  99. Andrew Erickson, “Constructing a System of Systems,” in Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM): Drivers, Trajectories, and Strategic Implications Development (Washington: Jamestown Foundation, 2013), 91-108,; Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin, “China’s Antiship Ballistic Missile-Developments and Missing Links,” Naval War College Review 62, Number 4 (Autumn 2009), 7-16,
  100. David Kearn Jr., “The Future of US Deterrence in East Asia: Are Conventional Land-Based IRBMs a Silver Bullet?” Strategic Studies Quarterly 7, no. 4 (2013), 94-97,; Robert Haddick, Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 96-98. See Fire on the Water Chapter 4 for more in-depth discussion about China’s emerging reconnaissance-strike complex.
  101. Ashley Tellis, “China’s Military Space Strategy,” Survival 49, no. 3 (2007), 64,
  102. Triezenberg, “Deterring Space War,” 30-32.
  103. For a detailed discussion on ASAT systems and mutual restraint during the Cold War see: Steve Weber, “Antisatellite Weapons,” in Cooperation and Discord in U.S.-Soviet Arms Control (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991),; Kurt Gottfried and Richard Lebow, “Anti-Satellite Weapons: Weighing the Risks,” Daedalus 114, no. 2 (1985),; Michael Krepon and Christopher Clary, “Space Assurance or Space Dominance?: The Case Against Weaponizing Space,” Report (Washington: Henry L. Stimson Center, 2003), 36-39,
  104. Gompert and Saunders, Paradox of Power, 95-105; James Lewis, “Reconsidering Deterrence for Space and Cyberspace,” in Anti-Satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington: Stimson Center, 2013), 62,
  105. Michael Krepon, “Space and Nuclear Deterrence,” in Anti-Satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington: Stimson Center, 2013), 391,
  106. Brian Weeden, U.S.-China Strategic Relations in Space, Report (Washington, DC: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2016), 69, U.S.-China Strategic Relations; Larry Wortzel, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Space Warfare: Emerging United States-China Military Competition,” International Journal of Space Politics and Policy 6, no. 2 (2008), 8-9, Kevin Pollpeter, “The Chinese Vision of Space Military Operations,” in China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Emerging Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army ed. James Mulvenon and David Finkelstein (Alexandria: CAN Corporation, 2005), 362, Lewis, Reconsidering Deterrence for Space and Cyberspace, 64-65.
  107. Satellites are inextricably linked with nuclear war-fighting due to their importance in weather forecasting; targeting, indications and warning of attacks; assessing damage and maintaining command, control and communications. During the Cold War, the United States and U.S.S.R. understood that an attack on the satellites used for nuclear war-fighting was unlikely to be viewed in a vacuum. Instead, attacks on critical assets and infrastructure in space commonly were viewed in the gravest terms, regardless of whether they were precursors to attacks on nuclear forces. However, the current Sino-U.S. nuclear posture is very different from that of the United States and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. China’s stated nuclear strategy is that of minimum nuclear deterrence. China asserts that it has no nuclear first strike capability and that it maintains only a second-strike capability to avoid nuclear blackmail. This posture results in strategic decoupling between space warfare and nuclear weapons. In the next decades, China may double its nuclear forces, pursue a nuclear triad, and move to a launch-on-warning posture. As China’s nuclear modernization progresses, its leadership is likely to internalize the inextricable link between space warfare and nuclear warfare. See: Zhenqiang Pan, “A Study of China’s No-First-Use Policy on Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament 1, no. 1 (2018), 115-119; Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington: Department of Defense, September 2020); Michael Krepon, “Space and Nuclear Deterrence,” in Anti-Satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington: Stimson Center, 2013);
  108. Tellis, “China’s Military Space Strategy,” 64; Brad Townsend, “Strategic Choice and the Orbital Security Dilemma,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Spring 2020), 77-78, SSQ Townsend.
  109. Tellis, 48-50.
  110. Tellis, 48-50.
  111. Timothy Thomas, The Dragon’s Quantum Leap: Transforming from a Mechanized to an Informatized Force (Fort Leavenworth: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2009), 175-179, 199, 212-215. ASAT weapons are mentioned in Chinese literature as a possible “trump card,” a weapon that allows for China gain an information advantage at the outset of a conflict. Implementation of “trump card” weapons could allow China to accomplish victory without fighting in the spirit of Sun Tzu.
  112. Gompert and Saunders, The Paradox of Power, 180
  113. Gompert and Saunders, 180.
  114. Townsend, “Strategic Choice and the Orbital Security Dilemma,” 79-84.
  115. Peter Martinez et al., “Criteria for Developing and Testing Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) for Outer Space Activities,” Space Policy 30 (2014), 91,; Johnson-Freese, Heavenly Ambitions, 80-92.
  116. Jervis, Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma , 199-205.
  117. Krepon and Clary, “Space Assurance or Space Dominance,” 25-26. BMD and co-orbital rendezvous systems are particularly prone to the problems posed by distinguishability (or lack thereof). BMD systems are well-suited for use as DA-ASAT weapons. Systems that demonstrate co-orbital rendezvous capability raise questions of space weaponization. See: Ashton Carter, “The Relationship of ASAT and BMD Systems,” Daedalus 114, no. 2 (1985): 173-176; Gertz, “Going on Defense: China, U.S. Conduct Missile Defense Tests,” Washington Free Beacon, January 27, 2013, China BMD test; Bill Gertz, “China ASAT Test Part of Growing Space War Threat,” The Washington Free Beacon, February 23, 2018 ASAT Test Weaponization; Weeden and Samson, “Global Counterspace Capabilities,” Section 1 and Section 3; Brian Weeden, “China’s BX-1 Microsatellite: A Litmus Test for Space Weaponization,” The Space Review, October 20, 2008, BX-1; Kevin Pollpeter, “China’s Space Robotic Arm Programs,” UC San Diego: Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, October 2013 (2013), China’s Robotic Arm; Brian Weeden, “Dancing in the Dark: The Orbital Rendezvous of SJ-12 and SJ-06F,” The Space Review, August 30, 2010, Rendezvous; Colin Clark, “China Satellite SJ-17, Friendly Wanderer?” Breaking Defense, April 18, 2018, SJ-17; David Leonard, “Mysterious Actions of Chinese Satellites Have Experts Guessing,”, September 09, 2013, SJ-17 Debate; David Axe, “Is China’s Mysterious New Satellite Really a Junk Collector—or a Weapon?” The Daily Beast, July 5, 2016, Debris Collectors; “China’s new Orbital Debris Clean-Up Satellite raises Space Militarization Concerns,” Spaceflight101, June 29, 2016,
  118. Arms racing is not difficult to imagine. Since the Chinese DA-ASAT test in 2007; the U.S. conducted a destructive test of its SM-3 missile in 2008, India conducted a destructive test in 2019 using their PDV MK-II system, and Russia plans to operationalize an anti-satellite missile by 2022; Justin Paul George, “History of Anti-Satellite Weapons: U.S. Tested 1st ASAT Missile 60 Years Ago,” The Week, March 27, 2019, ASAT History. Russia appears to have a robust co-orbital ASAT program. See: Weeden and Samson, “Global Counterspace Capabilities,” Section 2. It remains to be seen whether co-orbital ASAT development and testing will follow the same tit-for-tat pattern as that of DA-ASATs.
  119. Jervis, Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma, 186-194.
  120. Jervis, 186-194. Jervis developed two tests to determine offense vs. defense balance. First, does the state have to spend more or less than one dollar on defensive forces to offset each dollar spent by the other side on forces that could be used to attack? Second, is there an incentive to strike first or to absorb the other’s blow? If the answer is yes to both these questions, the balance will favor the offense. Technology and geography are the two main factors that determine whether the offense or the defense has the advantage. An examination of geography and technology shows that, at this current time, space passes both of Jervis’s tests for offense dominance.
  121. Townsend, “Strategic Choice and the Orbital Security Dilemma,” 75-76.
  122. Morgan, 13-15; Johnson-Freese, Heavenly Ambitions, 69-73.
  123. Forrest Morgan, Deterrence and First Strike Stability in Space: A Preliminary Assessment, Monograph, (Santa Monica: RAND, 2010), 31,
  124. See David Wright, Laura Grego, and Lisbeth Gronlund, The Physics of Space Security (Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005) and Townsend, “Strategic Choice and the Orbital Security Dilemma.” Townsend argues that the redundancy resulting from the disaggregation of space architectures tips the offense-defense balance in favor of defense on the operational and strategic levels.
  125. See Wright, Grego, and Gronlund; Gompert and Saunders, Paradox of Power, 104-105.
  126. Of the defensive capabilities mentioned, disaggregation of space architectures may be the most promising. It presents an opportunity to “have it both ways;” perusing fractionation, functional, hosted payload, multi-orbit, and multi-domain disaggregation could deny an adversary potential gains as well as prove cost-saving and performance benefits. There is a debate as to whether this is a viable path forward for the United States’ space enterprise. However, many elements of disaggregation seem to be underway and it has traction at the highest levels. That being said, meaningful change will take decades of commitment to research and development funding, a fundamental shift in Space Force culture, and reform of the acquisitions process. See: Eric Felt, “Cost Considerations Of Transition Toward A Disaggregated Satellite Architecture,” Dissertation, (Air War College, 2013), Disaggragation Dissertation; White Paper, “Resiliency and Disaggregated Space Architectures,” Air Force Space Command, 2013, White Paper; Aloysius Casey and Eugene DeNezza, “Future Space System Acquisitions: Is the Key What or When?” Defense Acquisition Magazine (Jan-Feb 2014), AT&L Article ; Dax Linville and Robert Bettinger, “An Argument Against Satellite Resiliency: Simplicity in the Face of Modern Satellite Design,” Air & Space Power Journal (Spring 2020);
  127. Morgan, Deterrence and First Strike Stability in Space, 26-30
  128. Rafal Kopec, “Space Deterrence: In Search of a ‘Magical Formula’,” Space Policy (2018), 1-7, The credibility of a U.S. retaliatory strike is extremely low due to the effects of debris creation on the space environment; Morgan, 26-30
  129. Jim Wolf, “U.S. Shot Raises Tensions and Worries Over Satellites,” Reuters, February 21, 2008,
  130. The accumulation of space debris is a vital concern to the sustainability of the space environment due to the risk of conjunction between objects in a crowded orbit. When a catastrophic collision occurs, debris propagation from that event increases the probability that a subsequent collision will occur. This cascading effect continues past an instability threshold for a given orbit. When the threshold is reached, debris removal due to decay becomes negligible compared to debris added by subsequent collisions. This pattern can render orbits functionally unusable. The 2007 Chinese DA-ASAT test is the single greatest source of orbital debris. It created 3,000 objects greater than 10cm out of 20,000 total tracked by the U.S. SSN, and an estimated 150,000 smaller untracked objects. Due to the limitations of the SSN, the extent of the debris cloud has not been completely characterized, but NASA estimates Fengyun-1C debris comprises one third of total LEO debris. DA-ASAT weapons can destroy adversary capabilities, but they risk the eventual destruction of any satellite with similar orbital characteristics and may preclude future use of the orbit. For a spacefaring nation like the United States, the negative outcomes from the use of DA-ASAT weapons will almost always outweigh the utility gained from their use. Therefore, DA-ASAT weapons lack credibility as a deterrent threat. See: Donald Kessler and Cour-Palais Burton, “Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt,” Journal of Geophysical Research 83, no. A6 (1978); Baiocchi, Dave and William Welser. Confronting Space Debris: Strategies and Warnings from Comparable Examples Including Deepwater Horizon (Santa Monica: RAND, 2010); David Wright, Colliding Satellites: Consequences and Implications (Cambridge: Global Security Program, the Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2009); Nicholas Johnson et al., “The Characteristics and Consequences of the Break-up of the Fengyun-1C Spacecraft,” Acta Astronautica 63, no. 1-4 (2008).
  131. Allison, Destined for War, 221-231. Ultimately, the preservation of national sovereignty and the safety of the global economic order are core interests of both nations.
  132. Kissinger, On China, 543.

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