The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISDC 2024

Chinese ASAT debris cloud
Even as China seeks a treaty banning the placement of weapons in space, it has tested direct-ascent ASATs, including a 2007 test that destroyed a satellite and created a cloud of debris. (credit: AGI)

An exercise in the Art of War: China’s National Defense white paper, outer space, and the PPWT

Bookmark and Share

On March 31, 2011, the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China issued a white paper on national defense titled China’s National Defense in 2010.1 The white paper is a comprehensive public statement of the PRC’s stance on matters relating to its national defense. Chapter X of the report, Arms Control and Disarmament, states the PRC’s position on the prevention of an arms race in space. Specifically, the section states that:

[t]he Chinese government has advocated from the outset the peaceful use of outer space, and opposes any weaponization of outer space and any arms race in outer space. China believes that the best way for the international community to prevent any weaponization of or arms race in outer space is to negotiate and conclude a relevant international legally-binding instrument.

In February 2008, China and Russia jointly submitted to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) a draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). In August 2009, China and Russia jointly submitted their working paper responding to the questions and comments raised by the CD members on the draft treaty. China is looking forward to starting negotiations on the draft treaty at the earliest possible date, in order to conclude a new outer space treaty.

The United States rejected the PPWT in 2008, and the provisions of the proposal have raised questions among other members of the Conference on Disarmament, yet the Russian Federation and the PRC continue to press for its adoption. However, in spite of the PRC’s stance in its white paper, is the true policy of the PRC to prevent an arms race in outer space or does it have a different objective in mind? The teachings of a legendary Chinese general may offer some insight.

PRC’s perception of the United States’ space power

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the outcome of a hundred battles.”2

The United States is in a unique position among the nations of the world regarding the development of and the reliance upon its outer space systems. These systems not only provide national security functions, but also support the economy and civilian sector as well. It is this reliance that makes those outer space systems particularly vulnerable. The PRC recognizes both this reliance and vulnerability.

The PRC also understands that the best way to counter this advantage is to deny the United States the use of its space systems.

A 2007 report to Congress from the State Department’s Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division3 addressing the PRC’s January 11, 2007, ASAT test quoted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, General Peter Pace. At a March 7, 2007, news conference regarding the ASAT test, General Pace notes several comments made by PRC military and foreign policy personnel concerning the threat of the United States’ outer-space systems to the PRC’s national security:

  • “Various comments by PLA officers and PRC civilian analysts have justified the ASAT test as needed to counter perceived U.S. ‘hegemony’ in space and target the vulnerability of U.S. dependence on satellites.”
  • “A PLA Air Force colonel wrote in late 2006 that U.S. military power, including long-range strikes, have relied on superiority in space and that leveraging space technology can allow a rising power to close the gap with advanced countries more rapidly than trying to catch up.”
  • “A PRC specialist at Fudan University indicated that China’s ASAT program is developed partly to maintain China’s nuclear deterrence, perceived as undermined by U.S. space assets.”

The PRC understands the advantage the United States has with it space systems, and that they are critical to its military operations. The PRC also understands that the best way to counter this advantage is to deny the United States the use of its space systems.

These open-source statements are not all-inclusive and raise the question of whether they actually reflect the true policy of the PRC. While it is difficult to rely solely on open source literature and commentary from the PRC as a persuasive warning that United States’ outer space systems are vulnerable, neither should they be idly be dismissed.4

PRC and the PPWT

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you proceed your adversary, occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”

“…if the enemy has occupied precipitous heights before you, do not follow him, but retreat and try to entice him away.”

The PRC white paper extols the PPWT jointly submitted with the Russian Federation as the means to achieve the PRC’s purported policy goal of preventing the weaponization of outer space. In an indirect reference to the PPWT, Cheng Jingye, director-general of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made a comment early in 2011 that references the policy enunciated in the PRC white paper. Cheng, doubtless referring to the PPWT, said that the negotiation and conclusion of a new international legal instrument to prevent an arms race in outer space is the best way to ensure outer space’s peace and security.5

The proffered purpose in the preamble of the PPWT6 by the Russian Federation and China is to address the deficiency of Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty.7 Article IV bans the placement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit of the earth, but it is silent concerning weapons that are non-nuclear or otherwise do not reach the destructive potential of a weapon of mass destruction.

The PPWT offers the following definition of a space weapon:

The term “weapon in outer space” means any device placed in outer space, based on any physical principle, which has been specially produced or converted to destroy, damage or disrupt the normal functioning of objects in outer space, on the Earth or in the Earth’s atmosphere, or to eliminate a population or components of the biosphere which are important to human existence or inflict damage on them;

The PPWT goes on to say that:

A weapon shall be considered to have been “placed” in outer space if it orbits the Earth at least once, or follows a section of such an orbit before leaving this orbit, or is permanently located somewhere in outer space;

The PPWT then defines the “use of force” or the threat of “use of force” as:

The “use of force” or the “threat of force” mean any hostile actions against outer space objects including, inter alia, actions aimed at destroying them, damaging them, temporarily or permanently disrupting their normal functioning or deliberately changing their orbit parameters, or the threat of such actions.

The PPWT prohibits space weapons as defined by stating that:

[t]he States Parties undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons, not to install such weapons on celestial bodies and not to place such weapons in outer space in any other manner; not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects; and not to assist or induce other States, groups of States or international organizations to participate in activities prohibited by this Treaty.

More important than what the PPWT prohibits is what it does not prohibit or address. An August 18, 2009, letter from the Russian Federation and PRC delegation to the Disarmament Conference addressed concerns with the PPWT raised by other members. In particular, the letter asserts that:

  1. The PPWT prohibits the use or threat of force against “outer space objects”, but it does not prohibit the use or threat of force in outer space.
  2. The PPWT does not alter the right to self-defense allowed under Article 51 of the UN Charter; so long as that weapon is not prohibited by international law and is not used against a signatory of the PPWT.
  3. The PPWT does not prohibit, the development, testing, and deployment of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) so long as they do not meet the definition of “weapon in outer space” as defined by the PPWT.
  4. The PPWT does not prohibit the development, testing and deployment of ground-based lasers and electronic suppression systems.
  5. The PPWT does not address the issue of “dual-purpose” space technologies that could be employed both for peaceful or aggressive purposes.
  6. The PPWT does not include any mechanism for verification.

The wording and interpretation of the PPWT works to the PRC’s advantage by allowing it to continue to develop and deploy direct-ascent ASAT technology and other ground-based ASAT techniques. On the other hand, countries such as the United States would be limited in the means it could use to develop and deploy defenses specifically if the means of defense might be defined as a space weapon under the PPWT.

The PPWT and the United States’ space policy

“Though the enemy be stronger in numbers, we may prevent him from fighting. Scheme so as to discover his plans and the likelihood of success. Rouse him, learn the principle of his activity and inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spot.”

Diplomatic channels seem to verify that while publically touting its intention to prevent a arms race in space, the PRC is willing to do so only on its terms and through mechanisms like the PPWT to the exclusion of other methods.

United States space policy has evolved to recognize the dependence on its outer space systems and their inherent vulnerability. On October 6, 2006, the Bush Administration released the unclassified, public version of the National Space Policy.8 Among the principles enunciated, the National Space Policy states that:

The United States considers space capabilities — including the ground and space segments and supporting links — vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests;

This stance was considered provocative by many and drew the ire of political commentators and scholars alike. In particular, a scholar in US-China relations suggested that the National Space Policy articulated the goal of the United States to gain a monopoly in outer space to the exclusion of others, and that China might develop anti-satellite and space weapons to defend against that goal.9

Congress inquired whether the National Space Policy could have been the impetus to the PRC’s ASAT test, to which the State Department’s April 23, 2007, report concluded that:

Even before issuance of the U.S. space policy, China conducted three previous tests of this direct-ascent ASAT weapon and, by September 2006, China had used a ground-based laser to illuminate a U.S. satellite in several tests of a system to “blind” satellites.

Before and after this latest ASAT test, PRC military and civilian analysts have voiced concerns about China’s perceived vulnerability against U.S. dominance in military and space power. After the test, a Senior Colonel of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences said that “outer space is going to be weaponized in our lifetime” and that “if there is a space superpower, it’s not going to be alone, and China is not going to be the only one.”

This counters that the proposition that the PRC’s motivation to perform the test was in response to the National Space Policy, and that the PRC had other rationales for performing it.

The 2006 National Space Policy further addressed the importance of the continued integrity of the United States’ outer space systems by stating that:

The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests;

This principle of the National Space Policy elicited in part the response of the United States to the PPWT on October 20, 2008. In a letter to the Chairman of the 63rd Session of the UN General Assembly during a debate on the disarmament aspects of the outer space, the United State’s public delegate, Karen E. House, stated that:

[i]t has been the consistent policy of the United States to oppose arms control concepts, proposals, and legally-binding regimes that seek or impose prohibitions on the use of space for military or intelligence purposes. The United States also opposes any arms control proposals which fail to preserve the right of the United States to conduct research, development, testing and operations in space for military, intelligence, civil or commercial purposes.

Ms. House, referring to the core space law treaties—the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, and the Registration Convention10 —also stated in her letter that: “it is also out long-standing position that the existing in-force regime is sufficient to guarantee the right of all nations for access to, and operations in, space.”11

The National Space Policy released by the Obama Administration on June 28, 2010,12 takes a similar but a subjectively less provocative tack concerning the integrity of United States space systems:

The United States will employ a variety of measures to help assure the use of space for all responsible parties, and, consistent with the inherent right of self-defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.

Consistent with this principle, the current National Space Policy takes a different approach with regard to new treaties concerning outer space:

The United States will pursue bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space. The United States will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.

Given the lack of a verification mechanism in the PPWT and the inherent difficulty of verifying such a treaty, it is doubtful that the current National Space Policy will direct the United States to pursue it.

Two faces of the PRC’s defense policy?

“Humble words and increased preparations are signs that the enemy is about to advance.”

As noted earlier, much of the insight into the PRC’s intentions are the result of open-source information; however, there is evidence from official channels that may indicate the intentions and policy of the PRC.

An article from the Washington Times reported on an missile-defense test performed by the PRC in 2010 using components of the ASAT system used in the January 2007 test.13 The information concerning the test was gleaned by from a diplomatic cable belonging to the United States and disclosed by Wikileaks.14 In addition to the information relating to the missile-defense test, the disclosed cable purportedly notes concerns from United States’ diplomats that Beijing has duplicitous motives in regards to the issue of weapons in spaces.

The international community should continue to be wary of the public perception that the PRC works so hard to manufacture and promote.

According to the article, the cable purportedly contains concerns from United States’ diplomats that, while Beijing is promoting international treaties to limit or ban weapons in outer space, it is secretly developing its own missile defense and space weapons programs. The article continues that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, during a recent visit to Beijing, offered to hold talks with China on missile defense, space weapons, nuclear weapons, and cyber weapons, but was apparently rebuffed, with the PRC relegating the offer to be studied.

If accurate, diplomatic channels seem to verify that while publically touting its intention to prevent a arms race in space, the PRC is willing to do so only on its terms and through mechanisms like the PPWT to the exclusion of other methods, all the while increasing its ability to neutralize United States space systems and gain an upper hand in outer space.

The two faces of the PRC on outer space

“When there is much running about and the soldiers fall into rank, it means the critical moment has come. When some are seen advancing and some retreating, it is a lure.”

The combined open source material and information gleaned from official diplomatic communications suggest the PRC is following a two-pronged approach to address outer space security. The first prong of the PRC’s strategy is to publically denounce the weaponization of outer space and advocate the international community to enter into formal treaties banning space weapons as defined by the PRC thereby leaving the outer space systems belonging to its potential adversaries open to exploitation. The second prong of the PRC’s strategy is to continue to pursue the development and deployment of infrastructure both to deny an adversary the use of outer space while establishing an advantage in outer space.15

Given this, the PRC’s white paper concerning outer space could be a pretense to a more aggressive policy that could be phrased—hypothetically—as follows:

To promote and actively engage foreign space powers in negotiations leading to legally binding international agreement(s) through the PPWT and its successors that would limit the defense and use of their space assets in the case of conflict. The People’s Republic of China will pursue these agreements while maintaining and improving its technical ability to defend its outer space assets and deny foreign space powers the access and use of outer space.16

If this reflects the true face of the PRC’s policy, then its white paper position towards outer space has more in common with the PRC’s perceptions of the greatly criticized National Space Policy authorized by the Bush Administration, making the PRC’s true stance anything other than the peaceful intentions as its white paper extols.


“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is superior in strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

The precise goals of the PRC in the arena of outer space policy cannot be completely understood through the information garnered from open-source and comprised official documents. However insufficient that information may be to make a thorough analysis of what the PRC’s intentions are, the international community should continue to be wary of the public perception that the PRC works so hard to manufacture and promote.

For all its overtures of promoting the peaceful use of outer space, the PRC also cannot ignore the realities that outer space plays and will continue to play in the future. Surely, as the PRC strives to increase it geopolitical influence and exclude others those realities will become even more important in times of conflict. To that end, the lessons of Sun Tzu provide an excellent basis to understand the PRC’s approach to this important issue.


  1. Xinhuanet, “Full text: China’s National Defense in 2010”, March 31, 2011.
  2. Quotes heading each section are taken from The Art of War, Sun Tzu, edited by James Clavell.
  3. Shirley Kan, CSR Report for Congress, “China’s Anti-Satellite Weapons Test”, Order Code RS22652, p. CRS-4, April 23, 2007.
  4. Michael P. Pillsbury, Ph.D, “An Assessment of China’s Anti-satellite and Space Warfare Programs, Policies and Doctrines”, January 19, 2007, p. 6. See also Christopher Stone, “Chinese intentions and American preparedness”, The Space Review, August 13, 2007.
  5. Deng Shasha, “Double standards must be discarded to prevent arms proliferation: Chinese official”, Xinhua, January 21, 2011.
  6. Conference on Disarmament, Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” (CD/1839), 29 February 2008.
  7. Specifically, a section of the PPWT’s preamble states “Noting that the existing agreements on arms control and disarmament relevant to outer space, including bilateral agreements, and the existing legal regimes concerning the use of outer space play a positive role in exploration of outer space and in regulating outer space activities, and should be strictly complied with, although they are unable to effectively prevent the placement of weapons in outer space and an arms race in outer space…”
  8. The National Space Policy is marked as National Security Presidential Directive 49, but since that document has not been made public, excerpts are taken from “Unclassified” version released on October 6, 2006.
  9. See generally, Bao Shixiu, “Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space”, China Security, World Security Institute, Winter, 2007 (for a discussion on the United States National Space Policy and its threat to the PRC’s national security.)
  10. The United States has not ratified the Moon Treaty of 1979 and therefore does not recognize it as part of the legal regime of international outer space law.
  11. Statement as delivered by Karen E. House, United States Public Delegate to the 63rd Session of the UN General Assembly, Delivered in the Debate on Outer Space (Disarmament Aspects) of the General Assemblies First Committee, October 20, 2008.
  12. The National Space Policy enunciated by the Obama Administration is designated Presidential Policy Directive 4. The actual directive has not been released; excerpts are taken from the document released to the public on June 28, 2010.
  13. See Bill Gertz, “ASAT Missile Defense”, Inside the Ring, Washington Times, March 9, 2011.
  14. The author has not personally reviewed the diplomatic cable in question. The author believes that the documents disclosed by Wikileaks, including the cable in question are still classified despite their disclosure, and will remains so until they are officially declassified by their original classifying authority. Thus, the author will rely on the second-hand account of the content of the diplomatic cable provided by the Washington Times for this discussion.
  15. This approach is similar to the one proposed by Colonel Li Daguang in his book Space Warfare. See Christopher Stone, “Chinese intentions and American preparedness”, The Space Review, August 13, 2007.
  16. This language does not appear anywhere in any of the writings the author has presented. It is strictly the author’s conclusion of the PRC’s policy.