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    Greater China
     May 5, 2012


US chases shooting stars over China
By Benjamin A Shobert

Few parts of the American mythology resonate more deeply in popular consciousness than the Cold War-era space race.

Americans recall with a certain fondness a time when the country led the world in manned space exploration, a group of accomplishments set in motion only after the Soviet Union shocked the world with its Sputnik launch.

Even today, during one of President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union addresses, he harkened back to this moment as an example of America's ability to come together and rally after being surprised by a foreign competitor, except this time it would be in an effort to build consensus domestically for a focused effort to

 

match China's immense energies in the clean-tech and high-speed rail areas.

As China continues to develop as a nation-state, it was inevitable that at some point its path forward would drive it to develop its own space strategy. It was similarly inevitable that as China began to do so, its plans would come to be interpreted as additional reason to question the country's intentions.

For those predisposed to distrusting Beijing, China's plans for space would be additional fuel to the fire regarding their view of China as a strategic competitor. Beyond this point, China's financial ability to entertain manned space travel stands in sharp contrast to American and European fiscal situations where space exploration is likely to be one of many inevitable budget sacrifices.

A recent report, "China's Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for US Interests" was commissioned by the Congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC). Released last week, the report acknowledges the important role space plays in a nation's conception of itself as a "great power".

As the report's authors Mark Stokes and Dean Chen with the Project 2049 Institute write, "... since the Cold War, space technology has been viewed as a metric of political legitimacy, national power, and status within the international community."

The next step in American and Chinese competition was made all but certain when Yang Liwei became the first Chinese ever to be launched into space in 2003. With this achievement, China signaled to the world both its intention of becoming a "great power", as well as its desire to pursue a national strategy of its own making in space, just as the United States and Soviet Union had done before.

This recognition that it was simply a question of "when" and not "if" China would develop a competitive space strategy as that of the United States, European Union and Russia is helpful; however, the inherent dual-use nature to much of any nation's space-based assets make a balanced approach difficult. The report acknowledges this early on when its authors write, "China's space ambitions are in part peaceful in nature. Yet technologies can also be used with ill intent."

What ill intent is most troubling to American policymakers? Simply put, the ability of China's space strategy to deny access to American military resources in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.

Last week's report makes no effort to deflect this concern; in fact, the report asserts that China's space policy would play an essential role if such a situation were to occur. While the authors of the report make no claim that such a moment is either imminent or likely, their concern is obvious. As they put it, "Because Taiwan's democratic system of government - an alternative to mainland China's authoritarian model - presents an existential challenge to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], the PLA [People's Liberation Army] relies on military coercion to compel concessions on sovereignty."

Space-based assets would provide several critical advantages in the event of a conflict in the Strait of Formosa. First, China's space-based monitoring capabilities have significantly increased and improved, with a particular eye towards what are known as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites.

SAR capability allows China to "operate night or day in all weather conditions, and are therefore well-suited for detection of ships in a wide area". The report adds, "As Chinese engineers have noted, SAR imagery is key for automated target recognition of ships at sea."

The obvious implication to this is that China now has the ability to peer into the Formosa Strait and surrounding East and South China Sea areas to see real-time movements of US naval equipment.

The second advantage China's space-based infrastructure could provide it with is related to Beijing's nascent Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capability. In the event of a conflict, China's ASAT technology could allow it to blind large segments of the American communication infrastructure, making a coordinated response of military assets difficult, if not impossible.

Beijing's ASAT capability is not only an example of China's growing capabilities in space, but also the speed with which their capabilities have grown. While the Pentagon has many concerns over China's growing military abilities overall, Beijing's ASAT capability remains one of the most vexing.

Recent conflicts the American military has had to confront have been decidedly one-sided. Whether much of the technology-laden weapon platforms the current American military relies on so heavily would be as effective against a country with capabilities like China's ASAT remains to be seen.

In this way, the Pentagon's fears are accurately reflected in the recent USCC-commissioned report over China's ASAT technology.

ASAT capabilities are tricky to defend against and would likely present American military planners with additional pressure to launch a pre-emptive strike to disable China's ASAT launch infrastructure, a move that would require deep ingress within mainland China, a move that would make all but certain a broader war.

Sensitivities towards Beijing's ASAT capabilities are not only related to its disruptive potential; as the report points out, ASAT tests have been effective at applying political pressure during critical domestic conversations within Taiwan. Stokes and Cheng write, "The ASAT test [in 2007] coincided with legislative debates on Taiwan regarding investment of resources into satellite systems and an associated launch vehicle."

The third advantage China's space policy presents in the event of a conflict is coordination and guidance of Beijing's most recent and particularly lethal missiles. These new missiles range from ground to sea-launched cruise and ballistic missiles that "would be integrated with satellite positioning and inertial navigation systems".

The report states these would be "intimately connected to China's air-and space-based SAR programs, the advantages of missile-borne SAR include all-weather capability, high resolution, extended range imaging, and autonomous guidance".
It is important to remember that each of these advantages are relative: they are relative to China's historic lack of capability in these areas, and they are relative to America's existing and projected future capabilities in space.

In this way, China's growing capabilities in space have to be measured both against where the country is coming from, and where similar space-based capabilities developed by the United States are going. America's advantages may be diminishing relative to historical norms, but a wide gap does exist and is likely to continue to for many years.

This captures much of the challenge American policymakers face when they are tasked, as the USCC is, to evaluate the nexus between economic and national security matters specific to US-China policy and trade.

Handled properly, reports like the most recent one covering China's building space capabilities point out the facts of what is changing on the ground, and make it impossible for members of the American government to claim that they were surprised should down the road a conflict occur.

But handled improperly, reports like this can be deeply unhelpful as they feed into a growing narrative over China's military build-up and naive questions from those outside China's borders over why the country could ever need such capabilities.

Taken too far, people fearful of China's intentions can easily become the equivalent of Germany in 1914. Then, a German government afraid that it would soon be outspent in an arms race with Russia, France and the United Kingdom, elected to attack Russia and France before Germany's military advantage had completely eroded.

Now, as far-fetched as it may seem, some in American policy circles seem to be treading on similar ground, overly sensitive to China's growing military expenditures and asking unanswerable questions about how China "might" use these capabilities against American interests.

How force "might" be used is an important question to consider, but finding reasons to prevent such an eventuality from ever occurring is of even greater importance.

Thus far, the American policy community has been able to walk this fine line; but as America's economic and political troubles mount, it will become increasingly difficult for Washington's politicians to avoid painting China in similar light as Germany did to Russia and France in the early 1900s.

Benjamin A Shobert is the Managing Director of Rubicon Strategy Group, a consulting firm specialized in strategy analysis for companies looking to enter emerging economies. He is the author of the upcoming book Blame China and can be followed at www.CrossTheRubiconBlog.com.

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