By Robert C. Thomas
A new space race driven by Asian nations will shape the 21st century. China’s ambition to become a dominant space power, Japan’s diversification of its space program, and India’s bold moves have put these three countries in the lead of a shift in scientific, economic, and military activity in outer space. In order to tap into the resulting economic gains and avoid the risk of a security catastrophe, the United States and other international space powers must adjust their approach to the ambitious public and private sector advances of their peers in Asia.
Chinese leaders have pushed their space program far and fast in recent decades and are now bringing the private sector into the game. In recent years, the Chinese government has demonstrated advances in human spaceflight and space station technology, experiments in secure communications satellites, and an ongoing project to develop a competitor to the U.S.-led GPS navigation system. After a controversial test in 2007, when China successfully destroyed a space satellite, it is also likely that the Chinese military has continued to develop anti-satellite weapon systems. More recently, Chinese officials have even begun supplementing their government space initiatives by supporting the development of nominally private companies in the space sector. The state plays a heavy role in the direction and operation of new startups, such as OneSpace and ExPace, that officials hope can compete with Western companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin for market share in the launch services and other space activities. They see these startups as part of China’s efforts to boost tech-driven growth to combat an economic slowdown.
Meanwhile, Japan’s JAXA space program can boast of successful unmanned planetary and asteroid probe missions. However, the failure of a recent test of a project to remove dangerous debris from orbit has hampered Japan’s bid to deal with challenges closer to Earth. Like their American and Chinese counterparts, Japanese officials have begun pushing legislative and regulatory reforms to open the legal environment for the private sector to operate more freely in space, while also providing support to developing space programs in Southeast Asia. Japanese officials also seem focused on boosting their use of space systems for security purposes in response to threats like North Korea’s missile program.
Eyeing their competitors to the East, the Indian government has also begun to stake out a place for their space program as a pioneer in advancing ambitious space projects at a low cost. India recently completed a Mars orbiter mission and set a record for the largest number of satellites deployed in a single rocket launch. The Indian Space Research Organization’s June 2017 launch of the country’s largest rocket yet offers India a chance to handle much larger satellites. This has added fuel to India’s ambition to join the United States, Russia, and China in launching its own astronauts into space. Space has become a key area in which Indian leaders seek to challenge Chinese aspirations of leadership.
For other nations and businesses that operate in outer space, responding to the momentum fueling Asian space programs is more than just a matter of prestige. The economic and security stakes are enormous. The global private sector relies on satellite infrastructure for telecommunications, navigation, and weather forecasting. Many militaries rely on similar communication and surveillance satellite infrastructure for increasingly crucial command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) functions. Nations that currently hold a lot of power in space, therefore, have an incentive to secure their respective infrastructures while also making preparations to target those of their adversaries in the event of a conflict.
This competition poses serious risks to satellite infrastructure—well beyond any satellites that are directly targeted in traditional conflicts. Because any collision or destruction of a satellite or spacecraft can produce clouds of dangerous debris that threaten to collide with even more satellites and spacecraft, conflicts in orbit risk devastating global satellite infrastructure by causing a chain reaction of collisions—the so-called Kessler Syndrome. The crucial benefits to the global economy provided by space systems could turn out to be a casualty if the Asian space race turns hostile.
Sustained efforts at confidence building, collaboration, and the establishment of clear ‘rules of the road’ to avoid conflicts and minimize damage will be crucial. Cooperation between the United States and China, as two of the most sophisticated military powers in space, is necessary for this effort. However, any attempt to reduce mistrust between the United States and China on this issue is hampered by U.S. law, which largely bars NASA from any cooperation with Chinese space activities. Replacing this blanket prohibition with more narrowly tailored security standards and export regulations would be a positive step, as would efforts to boost ties between military officials responsible for space security issues. Trade and investment agreements that reduce the risk for private sector companies working with international counterparts on space-related technology and projects are also critical in Asia and the West alike. Further efforts to lower space launch costs, increase the redundancy of key satellite systems, and improve the prospects for removing dangerous debris from orbit would mitigate the risk posed by potential security crises to the global economy.
Just as it is becoming the center of gravity for the global economy, Asia is likely to become the center of gravity for human space activity. Only a proactive approach to reducing security risks and improving cooperation can ensure that the resulting opportunities outweigh the risks.
Robert C. Thomas is an Asia-Pacific Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a government security contractor and the Managing Editor of Parabellum Report. Robert expects to receive his MA in Ethics and Public Affairs from George Mason University in 2017.