Written by Alex Calvo.

It is often said that in warfare it is essential to command heights, an injunction one can find in the Art of War itself, which goes as far as saying that “he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven”. The advent of aviation soon resulted in a struggle to command the skies in the Great War, and four decades later the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik became a wake-up call for the United States and one of the defining, iconic moments of the Cold War. In today’s muddled waters of the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region, when it is difficult to speak about war and peace, there not being any clear dividing line between the two, space is and is likely to remain one of the most intense areas of competition. Leaving aside soft power considerations and purely-civilian applications, modern militaries see themselves as more and more dependent on satellites. In Asia this is clear, among other areas, in terms of electronic intelligence gathering, missile defence, and mixed warfare (involving civilian and non-military state assets). Furthermore, China’s significant steps into space have not gone unnoticed, either in the region or at a global level. In addition to launching a growing number of rockets (15 plus one failed attempt in 2013, third in the world ranking right after the United States), China is one of only two countries currently regularly sending people into space, is working to deploy a space station (based on the existing Tiangong-1, 天宫一号, or Celestial Palace 1, module), and in December 2013 landed her Yutu (玉兔, or Jade Rabbit) rover on the moon (first lunar soft landing since 1976). Reporting and commentary on China’s space activities often focuses on the country’s anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, and it is to these that we shall now turn our attention.

On 11 January 2007, China conducted its first-ever anti-satellite test, launching a ballistic missile carrying a kinetic kill vehicle (that is with no explosive warhead) against her own Fengyun-1C (风云, or  Wind Cloud) weather satellite, hitting it at an altitude of some 530 miles (low earth orbit, LEO). This prompted two kinds of concern. First of all, the possibility that the resulting space junk may constitute a hazard to other spacecraft; a possibility that became a reality on 22 January 2013 when a Russian nano-satellite collided with some fragments. Second, more generally, that this meant an end to the “ASAT truce” between the US and the USSR/Russia, which had last conducted such tests in the 1980s, during the final stages of the Cold War. Third, that this was yet further proof that Beijing was both taking giant steps in her military capabilities and showing little regard for existing normative systems. The fact that the test took place as Chinese diplomats were preparing for a meeting in Vienna on minimizing space debris also raised questions about policy coordination in Beijing. In 2010 and 2013 Beijing conducted what it labelled as missile defence tests, targeting suborbital targets. These tests did not result in any long-lived space debris. The latest step in China’s ASAT program may have been a test conducted on 13 May 2013, although the Chinese Academy of Sciences claimed it was a high-altitude scientific research mission.

Going beyond these details, we may ask the question why Beijing needs to develop an anti-satellite capability. This is something that Chinese leaders do not seem to have been ready to address openly in meetings with US counterparts and which some experts have called “one of the most troubling strategic space questions of the twenty-first century”. Among the potential range of answers we may stress a few, moving along a warfare intensity axis. First of all, in the event of a large-scale conventional war, putting a dent on an enemy’s eyes on the sky would very much facilitate all sorts of operations. Second, in such scenario, should an escalation to nuclear be considered a possibility, and provided the other side had deployed a space-based missile shield, Beijing’s minimum nuclear deterrent posture would make it necessary for Chinese forces to degrade that enemy defensive capability. Given that China has a limited number of nuclear warheads, current American work in this area (supported first and foremost by Japan), although seemingly not targeted at Beijing, may put the Asian giant in a quandary. The choices available are either a massive expansion of missile numbers, their modernization to make them less vulnerable to countermeasures, or the development of means to deal with enemy missile shields. The emphasis on ASAT capabilities may be evidence that the latter is Beijing’s preferred option. A connected question is whether the potential neutralization of a missile shield is in and by itself conducive to greater, or lesser, strategic stability. On the one hand, it could be a way to deliver a powerful message short of actually stepping into a nuclear exchange. On the other hand, a nuclear power enjoying numerical superiority but sporting a missile shield vulnerable to Chinese ASAT capabilities may feel pressed to “use them or lose them”. Third, and related to this last aspect, the ability to destroy a country’s satellites may also provide a power with the possibility of launching a shot across the bow. That is, of using non-lethal force to draw a red line, while at the same time degrading the other side’s ability to react, yet avoiding loss of life and pushing the other side into a corner.

It is here that Taiwan appears, as a potential fourth consideration. As recent events in Hong Kong and Macau, and the gradual development of a Taiwanese civic identity, make the prospect of consensual Finlandization or unification more and more distant, the question of how Beijing may use limited force to bring about either outcome becomes more relevant than ever. Taiwan’s space presence may be modest, but it still constitutes a possible target in a scenario involving the use of force short of war.

Fifth, but indeed not last, satellites are an essential (although not the most visible) asset in the complex pattern of limited warfare going on in the South China Sea. In this chessboard we find not only naval and other state vessels, but myriad trawlers, increasingly connected by satellite, a technology which also enables them to be precisely located. Thus, the possibility of blinding fishing and coastguard vessels from other countries may provide a further incentive to develop China’s ASAT program.

Finally, we could add that although military competition in space is often discussed in terms of US-China rivalries, the actions over the coming years of two of Beijing’s neighbours may influence to some extent Chinese policy in this field. We are talking about Japan and Russia. The former is the US’ first and foremost partner when it comes to missile defence and seems strongly interested in continuing work in this field. The latter may react to growing pressure from Washington and NATO with a move to develop modern missile defences, in which case the relative balance of power with China may be affected as well, putting a dent on the effectiveness of Beijing’s limited nuclear arsenal vis a vis that of Russia. All together, just another reminder of how interconnected the security and defence policies of all these players (and others not covered here) are. This makes one think that China may retain powerful incentives to keep developing ASAT assets and capabilities. Having said that, some observers have noted how Beijing’s actual capabilities in this field, while growing, are still a far cry from what some media reports may imply. For example the GPS system’s vulnerability to the publicly-confirmed Chinese capabilities is relatively low.

Alex Calvo is currently visiting professor at Nagoya University. He is also a Regular Contributor at the CPI blog and tweets at @Alex__Calvo. Image credit: CC by Ryan Crierie/Flickr