On July 1, 2021—the one-hundredth birthday of the Chinese Communist Party—President Xi Jinping declared that China will “advance peaceful national reunification” with Taiwan. It would be easy to dismiss such statements as mere political rhetoric: certainly, Taiwan would never willingly accede to Chinese demands to rejoin the fold. But China’s rapidly advancing anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities could open up another avenue: deterring United States intervention on Taiwan’s behalf in order to coerce reunification without firing a shot.
If current trends hold, then China’s Strategic Support Force will be capable by the late 2020s of holding key U.S. space assets at risk. Chinese military doctrine, statements by senior officials, and past behavior all suggest that China may well believe threatening such assets to be an effective means of deterring U.S. intervention. If so, then the United States would face a type of “Sophie’s Choice”: decline to intervene, potentially leading allies to follow suit and Taiwan to succumb without a fight, thereby enabling Xi to achieve his goal of “peacefully” snuffing out Taiwanese independence; or start a war that would at best be long and bloody and might well even cross the nuclear threshold.
This emerging crisis has been three decades in the making. In 1991, China watched from afar as the United States used space-enabled capabilities to obliterate the Iraqi military from a distance in the first Gulf War. The People’s Liberation Army quickly set to work developing capabilities targeted at a perceived Achilles’ heel of this new American way of war: reliance on vulnerable space systems.
This project came to fruition with a direct ascent ASAT weapons test in 2007, but the test was limited in two key respects. First, it only reached low Earth orbit. Second, it generated thousands of pieces of long-lasting space junk, provoking immense international ire. This backlash appears to have taken China by surprise, driving it to seek new, more usable ASAT types with minimal debris production. Now, one such ASAT is nearing operational status: spacecraft capable of rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs).
Such spacecraft are inevitable and cannot realistically be limited. The United States, European Union, China, and others are developing them to provide a range of satellite services essential to the new space economy, such as in situ repairs and refueling of satellites and active removal of space debris. But RPO capabilities are dual-use: if a satellite can grapple space objects for servicing, then it might well be capable of grappling an adversary’s satellite to move it out of its servicing orbit. Perhaps it could degrade or disable it by bending or disconnecting its solar panels and antennas all while producing minimal debris.
This is a serious threat, primarily because no international rules presently exist to limit close approaches in space. Left unaddressed, this lacuna in international law and space policy could enable a prospective attacker to pre-position, during peacetime, as many spacecraft as they wish as close as they wish to as many high-value targets as they wish. The result would be an ever-present possibility of sudden, bolt-from-the-blue attacks on vital space assets—and worse, on many of them at once.
China has conducted at least half a dozen tests of RPO capabilities in space since 2008, two of which went on for years. Influential space experts have noted that these tests have plausible peaceful purposes and are in many cases similar to those conducted by the United States. This, however, does not make it any less important to establish effective legal, policy, and technical counters to their offensive use. Even if it were certain that these capabilities are intended purely for peaceful applications—and it is not at all clear that that is the case—China (or any other country) could at any time decide to repurpose these capabilities for ASAT use.
There is still time to get out ahead of this threat, but likely not for much longer. China’s RPO capabilities have, thus far, lagged about five years behind those of the United States. There are reasons to believe this gap may close, but even assuming that it holds, we should expect to see China demonstrate an operational dual-use rendezvous spacecraft by around 2025. (The first instance of a U.S. commercial satellite docking with another satellite to change its orbit occurred in February 2020.)
At the same time, China is expanding its capacity for rapid spacecraft manufacturing. The Global Times reported in January that China’s first intelligent mass production line is set to produce 240 small satellites per year. In April, Andrew Jones at SpaceNews reported that China is developing plans to quickly produce and loft a thirteen thousand-satellite national internet megaconstellation. It is not unreasonable to assume that China could manufacture two hundred small rendezvous ASAT spacecraft by 2029, possibly more.
If this happens, and Beijing was to decide in 2029 to launch these two hundred small RPO spacecraft and position them in close proximity to strategically vital assets, then China would be able to simultaneously threaten disablement of the entire constellations of U.S. satellites for missile early warning (about a dozen satellites with spares included); communications in a nuclear-disrupted environment (about a dozen); and positioning, navigation, and timing (about three dozen); along with several dozen key communications, imagery, and meteorology satellites. Losing these assets would severely degrade U.S. deterrence and warfighting capabilities, yet once close pre-positioning has occurred such losses become almost impossible to prevent. For this reason, such pre-positioning could conceivably deter the United States from coming to Taiwan’s aid due to the prospect that intervention would spur China to disable these critical space systems. Without their support, the war would be much bloodier and costlier—a daunting proposition for any president.
Should the United States fail to intervene, the consequences would be disastrous for both Washington and its allies in East Asia, and potentially the credibility of U.S. defense commitments around the globe. Worse yet, however, might be what could happen if China believes that such a threat will succeed but proves to be wrong. History is rife with examples of major wars arising from miscalculations such as this, and there are many pathways by which such a situation could easily escalate out of control to a full-scale conventional conflict or even to nuclear use.
This Catch-22 of so-called “peaceful reunification” on the one hand and catastrophic miscalculation on the other is entirely preventable. To do so, however, the United States must act now. To deter such pre-positioning and provide a clear framework for how to handle it if it does occur, the United States should immediately begin coordinating with its allies to establish shared understandings for the rules and operations of warning/self-defense zones in orbit. Additionally, the United States should develop and deploy bodyguard spacecraft to monitor and enforce such rules.
The United States cannot afford to wait; once the potential threat arrives, it will already be too late.
Dr. Brian G. Chow is an independent policy analyst with over 160 publications. Follow him on Twitter at @briangchow.
Brandon W. Kelley is the Director of Debate at Georgetown University and a graduate student in the Security Studies Program.