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Shenzhou/space station illustration
The rise of China as a major space power is seen by some in the US as a threat to American prestige, if not national security; is that threat real or the result of misperceptions on both sides of the Pacific? (credit: CNSA)

China and the US: space race or miscommunication?

It would be difficult for one to be familiar with current events in space over the last few years, or even the last few months, and not be aware of the perception that the United States and China are, or will soon enter, a full-fledged space race against each other. On more than one occasion in the last several months NASA administrator Mike Griffin warned that he believed that China would land humans on the Moon before the United States returned (see “Defending Constellation”, The Space Review, February 4, 2008). After Griffin discussed his interpretation of Chinese capabilities at a hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee last month, one committee member, Congressman Nick Lampson (D-TX), drew parallels to the launch of Sputnik, saying, “I believe personally that we may be in a greater period of challenge today than we were in 1957; we just don’t hear the beeps.” One presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), even made a tangential reference to China’s growing capabilities—and a potential loss of American capabilities—in a campaign speech last week in Houston: “I don’t want to be sending Americans into space on a Chinese or Russian manned vehicle.”

On the surface, these concerns are understandable and even reasonable. China has marked a number of major space milestones in recent years, from the launch of its first manned mission, Shenzhou 5, in 2003 to the launch last year of Chang’e-1, its first robotic lunar orbiter. China is also undergoing a dramatic economic revolution that can be called miraculous with little risk of hyperbole, becoming a massive exporter of all varieties of goods and enriching hundreds of millions of Chinese. If China has the ability to transform its society so radically, many argue, there’s little reason to doubt it can become a dominant power in space as well, if the nation’s leaders so desire.

If China has the ability to transform its society so radically, many argue, there’s little reason to doubt it can become a dominant power in space as well, if the nation’s leaders so desire.

That rise of Chinese space capabilities has a darker side, as illustrated vividly by the Chinese test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon last January. That test convinced many in the US that China’s space efforts pose a risk not just to American prestige, but to national security as well. Yet, while some people continue to wave a red flag (so to speak) about Chinese intentions in space, others argue that the real problem is not lunar exploration plans or ASAT weapons but rather a fundamental lack of understanding—on both sides of the Pacific.

Misperceptions and “trash articles”

Those in the US who are concerned about Chinese military space capabilities routinely cite a bevy of evidence, much of which appears in official Defense Department documents, in support of their claims. This evidence suggests that China is actively developing a wide range of ASAT weapons, from the kinetic kill vehicle tested last year to exotic approaches, like “parasitic microsatellites” that could stealthily attack larger spacecraft.

Many of those claims, though, are dubious. “A lot of the information that our analysts and intelligence officers are consuming—that’s driving their perceptions of Chinese intent regarding their civil and their military space programs—is based on very shoddy sources,” said Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China program manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Kulacki, speaking about US-Chinese relations in space at the New America Foundation in Washington last month, said that many of the reports about Chinese military space projects came from questionable sources and were either inaccurate or misinterpreted by US analysts.

A case in point is the claim of Chinese development of parasitic microsatellites, which appeared in the 2003 and 2004 editions of Defense Department reports to Congress about the Chinese military. “In chasing that source down, it turns out it’s from an individual’s web site—a blogger—who made the whole thing up,” Kulacki said. (The same Chinese blogger, he added, had published claims of a fanciful array of other advanced weapons on his site.) In another case, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center mistranslated a publication by a junior instructor at a Chinese artillery college and concluded that China was planning to deploy ASAT systems.

To better understand the types of sources out there, Kulacki and colleagues reviewed 1,500 articles published in China that referenced ASAT technology in some manner between 1971 and 2007, and grouped them into four categories. Nearly half—49 percent—were classified as “reviews” that provided only general information, while an additional 16 percent were “polemics”, or political diatribes with little technical information. Such articles are considered “trash articles” in China, Kulacki said: “They’re things people have to publish because they’ve got to publish something. They’re very low value and not read in China.”

Of the rest, 29 percent of the articles represented some kind of original analysis of ASAT technology, while only 6 percent delved into technical issues. Moreover, those technical articles don’t get the same level of attention by American analysts as the reviews and polemics. “If you look at the citations in US reports on this, we’re undervaluing the journals that actually might contain information that could tell us something meaningful about Chinese ASAT capabilities,” he said.

While American views of Chinese space efforts may be based on questionable sources, Chinese views of American space efforts are more complex. “In a general sense, the Chinese public and Chinese professionals have a very positive view of the US space program,” Kulacki said. He noted that a public expo about spaceflight in China shortly before the Shenzhou 6 mission was primarily about American space efforts, including a wall in the back that featured portraits of the astronauts who died on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

“A lot of the information that our analysts and intelligence officers are consuming—that’s driving their perceptions of Chinese intent regarding their civil and their military space programs—is based on very shoddy sources,” said Kulacki.

There are, though, more hostile views of US space programs in China, particularly of American military space projects. Those articles tend to be written not by space professionals but by political officers in the Chinese military, who write polemics that claim that the US wants to fight space wars. Because they’re not written by professionals, Kulacki said, they tend not to be sophisticated: in one example shown by Kulacki, a Chinese article was illustrated by a model of an American ASAT weapon—made of Lego bricks.

This results in something of an echo chamber effect between the “polemical communities” in the US and China. “They feed off of each other for sure,” Kulacki said. “There is this whole tiny dialogue between these two hawkish communities in these two countries that dominates the entire discussion on this in the public domain.”

There are also Chinese suspicions of American motives elsewhere in space. Kulacki noted that, shortly before the Shenzhou 5 launch, NASA provided orbital debris tracking data to the Chinese so they could avoid any potential collisions. A Chinese official involved with the mission told Kulacki that the data came late in their planning process, raising suspicions. “The relationship is so bad that he was convinced that NASA did that on purpose to mess them up,” he said. “There’s a lot of mistrust and bad feelings.”

About that ASAT test

Complicating the discussion of polemics and miscommunication is last January’s test of a Chinese ASAT, an event that appeared to confirm the suspicions of many in the US that China was actively developing offensive military space capabilities, even as it proposed treaties that would ban weapons in space. For months after the test, Western observers debated why China carried it out, and what message, if any, China was trying to send with it (see “The Chinese ASAT enigma”, The Space Review, May 7, 2007).

It turns out there may have been no deliberate message tied to the test. “In looking at the Chinese reasons for the test, Gregory and I both came back with a very bureaucratic and technical understanding of what happened,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, said in remarks after Kulacki spoke at the February 12 event. Scientists with China’s General Armaments Department, who had been working on ASAT technology for two decades, had simply reached the point where the technology was ready to test, and they wanted to demonstrate it.

Lewis said one of the reasons why China may have failed to anticipate the strong negative international reaction to the test may have had technical roots, namely, estimates of the amount of debris the test would produce. “As far as we can tell, the debris estimates that were presented to the Chinese leadership were done by a research institute affiliated with the General Armaments Department, the same people conducting the test,” he said. “As you might imagine, they were not exactly independent.” Even if the calculations weren’t faulty, he said, the results were presented in such a way to downplay any potential for a strong international reaction.

“I would caution people against thinking there was a message intended with the test,” Lewis said. “I think the thing that comes out of the bureaucratic account is that the Chinese didn’t think they were sending a message, or that they didn’t understand the content of the message. If they had thought they were sending a message, they would have paid more attention to the delivery of it.”

“I think the thing that comes out of the bureaucratic account is that the Chinese didn’t think they were sending a message, or that they didn’t understand the content of the message,” Lewis said of last year’s ASAT test.

Lewis noted that in his discussions with people in China after the test, “almost everyone” believes that, had the US expressed its concern with the ASAT flyby tests China conducted prior to the January 2007 intercept, “that might have been enough to tip the debate among the senior leadership and cause them not to carry out the test.” The US did not, though, because it did not want to engage with China on the military uses of outer space, according to Lewis. “Is that the optimum relationship for the US and China in space: not engaging, not discussing, not cooperating?”

Future prospects

The New America Foundation event took place the same day that China and Russia again presented a treaty proposal at the Conference on Disarmament that would ban weapons in space. As expected, the US rejected the proposal, saying the treaty was unnecessary given the lack of an arms race in outer space. Further muddying the waters, just two days later the US announced it would attempt to intercept a disabled satellite in a decaying orbit with a modified SM-3 missile, an effort perceived by some as little more than a veiled ASAT test.

Given that the January 2007 Chinese ASAT test all but ended any near-term prospects of civil space cooperation between the US and China, the current situation makes it unlikely that relationship will thaw any time soon—at least until after a new president takes office. If the relationship does improve, Kulacki sees space science as a likely initial forum for cooperation, perhaps with a US role on a planned Chinese solar observatory or an exchange of instruments on future American and Chinese lunar missions.

As for cooperation on the International Space Station, Kulacki noted that China is pressing ahead with plans to develop their own space station, but one Chinese official “dropped a huge hint” that China might abandon those plans if there was “another option”, thought to be a Chinese role in the ISS, even if it is some kind of “nominal participation” rather than a full-fledged partnership. “From my conversations with Chinese colleagues, they don’t entertain the possibility of human participation any time soon; they don’t think they’re ready,” he said, noting the lack of spacewalk and docking experience. “They have a lot of learning to do about how to operate in space.”

“I think we need to deal with that communication misconnection if we’re going to resolve this whole question of how the United States and China are going to relate to each other in space,” said Kulacki.

In the meantime, the US can do a lot more to better understand Chinese capabilities and intentions. “Their interpretations [of Chinese publications] suggest that they can’t discern credible from non-credible information,” Kulacki said. “They’re unable to discern authoritative from non-authoritative authors. They don’t think about the audience of some of these publications or the reasons for these publications, which suggests a lack of cultural knowledge needed to interpret the source material.” Moreover, there is a lot more information out there that doesn’t appear to be tapped by the US, including a huge online archive of books and publications called the China National Knowledge Infrastructure. “It doesn’t appear to me that our intelligence agencies are making use of that.”

It is difficult, though, to get a handle on some information, such as exactly how much money China spends on its space program; estimates vary widely and even Chinese officials have said that their budgets are “very complicated” (see “China, competition, and cooperation”, The Space Review, April 10, 2006). After his talk Kulacki said that there is a lack of transparency in how China’s space program is run, but that the US should first take better advantage of the information currently available before pressing China for more transparency, perhaps as part of negotiations for cooperation in civil space ventures.

Kulacki said that while he doesn’t believe that China is not a threat, he is skeptical of claims that the two countries are engaged in a space race of any sort. “There is an enormous disconnect between the way this is perceived in China and the way it’s perceived in the United States. I think we need to deal with that communication misconnection if we’re going to resolve this whole question of how the United States and China are going to relate to each other in space.”


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