At the end of May, China conducted its first crew handover for its recently completed space station, Tiangong. That included China’s first civilian taikonaut (astronaut). Alarmingly, Tiangong is expected to soon be the world’s primary space station with the International Space Station’s decommissioning in 2030. Then the US and its partners may only operate commercial platforms under NASA’s commercial low-earth-orbit destinations program.
The passing of this baton comes after the success of China’s launch of 41 satellites at once, an effort that brought it closer to SpaceX’s record of 143 satellites. China has already begun leading the world in military launches, sending 45 defence-related satellites into orbit in 2022. That was 15 more than the US sent into orbit.
While the People’s Liberation Army’s space plans are not reliably disclosed to the public, its actions make it clear that China has found its way to space, and it plans to stay.
China’s multiplying presence in ‘the final frontier’ is part of a reawakening to the importance of space around the world. The fundamentals aren’t new. In 1970, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted the importance of space exploration, and China is one of a growing number of countries recognising the tremendous economic, strategic, military and political potential of activity in space. The annual number of payloads launched into orbit has increased tenfold in the past decade, and the global space economy is estimated to sit at US$469 billion, with yearly revenues from space 6.4% higher in 2022 than in 2021.
It isn’t news that space is integral to modern life. Advances in technology designed for space have been used to better understand human health and biology and for faster communication. The world relies on the satellite-provided Global Positioning System (GPS) for everything from navigation to environmental and agricultural monitoring. The military uses satellites for weather forecasting, surveillance, intelligence, communications, early warning, position, navigation and timing purposes. There’s potential for even more value, with space-based mining, manufacturing and solar energy generation among possible future breakthroughs.
Space is a prime arena for international cooperation. Senior leaders such as Lieutenant General Nina Armango of the US Space Force have emphasised that the space domain underpins modern warfare in a technical and diplomatic sense. With competitive and cooperative elements, space is rapidly evolving into a strategic military domain with both economic and political ‘orbits’.
The PLA shares similar sentiments about the role of space in potential future conflicts. The 2020 edition of the PLA’s Science of military strategy (战略学) says what happens in space is ‘inseparable from the outcome of the war’. The PLA regards space power as ‘not only the glue of the modern integrated battlefield, but also the glue of the modern military power system’. Both the US and China recognise space as highly contested and requiring superiority.
The American-owned GPS is a free service and remains the world’s leading navigation system—the consequences of its disruption would ripple around the globe. However, the rapid growth of China’s space capabilities has included its own positioning and navigation system, the BeiDou satellite system, which the deputy director of the China Satellite Navigation Office, Chen Gucang, regards as comparable to, if not better than, GPS. BeiDou, too, is marketed as a system developed by China and generously ‘dedicated to the world’ in conjunction with the Belt and Road Initiative.
In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite test, blowing up one of its old weather satellites and creating a cloud of space debris that persists to this day. In an interview with Sinica, NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, an expert on China’s space program, described the event as an act of defiance against US attempts to maintain amicable space conditions by reserving the right to deny space access to anyone it feels is a threat. While condemned globally at the time, this action revealed the extent of PLA counterspace capabilities and its efforts to militarise space alongside the US.
And with plans to put the first taikonaut on the moon by 2030 and to surpass American space programs by 2045, China has no intention of slowing down. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s 2023 threat assessment declares that ‘China’s space activities are designed to advance its global standing and strengthen its attempts to erode US influence across military, technological, economical, and diplomatic spheres’. Simply put, it’s plausible that the US could cede space dominance to China given the current trajectory of the PLA’s space efforts.
The security implications of this could be far-reaching. Secretary of the US Air Force Frank Kendall notes that the linking of China’s space-based capabilities to its operational forces, and its growing ability to use its satellites to track US troops and assets, may enable the PLA to invasively collect intelligence from space without any nation being powerful enough to stop them.
From Beijing’s perspective, space activity is a clear way to further China’s socialist modernisation. It also reflects the PLA’s military–civil fusion strategy, which aims to utilise civilian research to enhance and revitalise the PLA by 2049. Retired US Lieutenant Colonel Thomas McCabe has written that ‘all the surveillance resources PRC civilian agencies have will be integrated into crisis/wartime military ISR [intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance]’. This effect may be executed through the employment of anti-access and area-denial techniques, which China has already proved itself capable of with its grey-zone warfare against Taiwan.
This is just the beginning. Societies would do well to monitor the progress of countries, particularly China, as they leverage the final frontier for political and strategic objectives. Without closely following this activity, governments and peoples may mistake China’s development in space as incremental instead of the skyrocketing growth it is. While PLA capabilities do not yet allow China to replace the US as the leading space power, they are rapidly expanding, alongside the threat they pose to international peace and security. Recognising the massive advantages space capabilities can provide is only the first step in protecting this domain from falling into the wrong hands.