Will U.S.-China Relations in Space be Cooperative or Competitive?

July 10, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Featured Speaker:

Michael Nacht, Thomas and Alison Schneider Professor of Public Policy, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley


Michael Krepon, Stimson Co-founder/Senior Associate and Director of the Space Security Program

Stimson hosted UC Berkeley professor Michael Nacht for a discussion on the mix of cooperation and competition in U.S.-China space relations. Nacht offered a brief assessment of the substance of the U.S.-China relationship, which he noted differed greatly from U.S.-Soviet relations, in part due to the depth of economic interconnectedness, and expected that bilateral relations would see simultaneous cooperation and competition, with opportunities for mis-calculation.by both states.

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Nacht spoke of the complex and largely classified nature of the space domain, which he described as congested and likely to become even more crowded, increasingly competitive in part due to private sector involvement, and contested as more countries seek to have a real role in space. With over 21,000 man-made objects in earth's orbit, space today is much more complex than it was during the Cold War. While he did not foresee direct military confrontation in space in the near future, he emphasized that the role of the U.S. military is to prepare for any and all contingencies, even those that might seem presently inconceivable. The United States depends on space and cyber assets for military operations, intelligence, war-fighting capabilities, and myriad other services vital to national defense. The ability to be able to deny U.S. space capabilities is essential for China's strategy in the event of conflict in East Asia.

Nacht argued that a pattern developing in U.S.-China strategic relations is the Chinese perception of the United States as a potentially interventionist power in the region, a posture China does not wish to encourage. Conversely, in the view of the United States, China has adopted a program of anti-access, area denial that could infringe upon U.S. interests in space.

Cooperation in space could help avert major confrontation, but transparency is limited. Both China and the United States have limited incentives to share additional information about their space programs with each other. Importantly, the potential for cross-domain deterrence - a response to an attack in one domain, like cyber, in another, like space or nuclear - could usher bilateral relations into uncharted and possibly dangerous territory.

Nacht concluded that the space domain will be an important factor in shaping U.S.-China relations in the future, and advised that the U.S.-China space relationship be handled maturely and with appreciation for the high stakes involved. He stated that while the U.S.-China space relationship would not be simple and probably would not succeed totally, limitations on transparency do not need to limit the ability to talk to the Chinese and pursue some efforts that might keep the relationship on track.

This discussion on U.S.-China space relations is presented by Stimson's Space Security program, and is supported by DTRA and the New-Land Foundation.


For more information, contact Julia Thompson at [email protected] or 202-478-3432