The author argues that due to China’s rapid and increasing dependence on space-based systems, the calculus in Beijing will invariably change orientation from military logic to a civilian one.
For over a decade, Beijing has followed an asymmetric path to developing its space-based capabilities, targeting the US’s overwhelming dependence on space-based systems. This has much to do with the fact that the US used space primarily for military purposes. However, given China’s steady ascent to becoming a peer competitor in civilian uses of space, its interest in upsetting the status quo will be diminished. A case in point has been its opposition the EU Space Code of Conduct (EUSCOC). Although opposing the EUSCOC has so far been beneficial for China, Beijing’s increasing dependence on dual use space-based systems would mean it is likely to have greater interest in furthering rather than opposing the EUSCOC.
However, given its political trajectory, it is unlikely to simply abide by rules laid down by others. Instead, it seeks to be incorporated into the rules-making process and may just agree to terms considerably similar to those in the EUSCOC. Two Chinese satellite programmes highlight this movement from a primarily military space challenger, to a civilian applications peer competitor.
The Beidou System
The first is the Beidou GPS system. Increasing regional dependence on the Beidou system makes it impossible for adversaries to specifically target China if they target the Beidou system. It also makes China’s economy and international reach heavily dependent on protecting the Beidou system’s integrity from a range of threats including kinetic attacks, electronic warfare as well as intentional and unintentional space debris related threats.
Launched in three phases, with the most recent being in 2019, the Beidou system comprises 35 satellites (the US’s GPS system comprises 30 Navstar satellites). Scheduled to be completed by June 2020, the Beidou system’s network coverage area has expanded from regional to global. Even as it’s use is steadily increasing in the global arena, Beidou use has already surpassed Navstar based GPS within the Chinese market. Applications, devices and countries linked to Beidou have been increasing and now include weather, disaster prevention and mitigation, transport, agriculture, communications, and e-commerce. Chinese mobile device manufacturers such as Huawei, Xiaomi, and OnePlus have been delivering Beidou compatible products. Services linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) too operate based on Beidou. This indicates a steady increase in its international footprint, as it adds to the existing 100 million individuals, approximately 250 China-Europe freight trains as well as approximately 4 million land-based commercial vehicles and 40,000 fishing vessels that depend on Beidou.
None of these take away from the military capabilities of the Beidou system, which was intentionally developed as a dual-use military system. The biggest value addition it brings is in terms of precision targeting aimed at correcting incorrect data that foreign GPS systems would deliberately feed to Chinese weapon systems. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Ran Chengqi, the director of the China Satellite Navigation Office, stated that the accuracy provided will change from the standard 10 meters to “decimetres, to centimetres.” Giving it considerably more room to manoeuvre in geopolitically tense regions like the South China Sea where it might come into conflict with the US or its allies. Thus Beidou aims to eliminate any dependence on Navstar satellites.
The Yaogan Electro-Optical Reconnaissance Satellites
The second system China depends on is the Yaogan Electro-Optical Reconnaissance Satellites. These are a series of 33 satellites that have been launched, and most recent launch took place in 2019. These satellites have a significant civilian use function, including crop yield assessment, land surveys, scientific experiments, communication, water conservancy, disaster monitoring, relief and mitigation.
On the military capabilities front, these satellites serve a wide range of military reconnaissance functions including high resolution optical and synthetic aperture radar images as well as electronic intelligence gathering. These functions are believed to aid China’s newly developed Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles by providing image matching for optical seekers in a heavily jammed environments where accuracy of GPS signals would be highly suspect.
China’s biggest calling card on the global stage is not its military but its economy. While its satellite programme still serves military purposes, their civilian applications have dwarfed their military imperatives. Given China’s rapid and increasing dependence on space-based systems, the calculus in Beijing will invariably change orientation from military logic to a civilian one. This is what makes China’s opposition to frameworks like the EUSCOC increasingly anachronistic.
This begs an important question: at what point will the economic imperatives of protecting space systems-based economy overtake Beijing’s military deterrence imperative? Although this might not be easy to predict, logically, the tipping point should be the juncture when China finds itself in a position of vulnerability similar to that of the US due to overwhelming dependence on space-based systems. However, given how China aspires to create rather than merely follow rules set by others, it will continue to oppose the EUSCOC until a substantial portion of Beijing’s inputs are incorporated into it. This must not be viewed as opposition but merely as the initial negotiating position.