Many of China’s space efforts are part of a strategic and military race with the US. Back in 2015, the Chinese army set up a Strategic Support Force to intensify efforts to challenge the US space military. Since 2007, China has had the technology to shoot satellites out of earth’s lower orbits with ground-based weapons and perhaps attack higher stationed satellites with its own satellites. It has made similar advances in developing non-physical space weapons, such as signal interference and cyber-attacks. It even has the technology ready to field a nuclear-armed anti-satellite weapon.
Unlevel playing field vis-à-vis Chinese companies may extend to space
In a trend known as “New Space" private space enterprises are proliferating everywhere. Two thirds of US satellites today serve civil or commercial applications. In the EU, too, civil and commercial satellites dominate. In contrast, of four Chinese satellites, only one is used for civil and commercial use; the other three satellites are deployed for governmental and military applications.
This is, in part, because China is a latecomer to New Space, but also because it is attempting to integrate the emerging commercial industry into its defense industrial base. The People's Liberation Army opened its Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for private launches and is increasing partnerships with the private sector and leading research universities. By transferring private sector innovation into the defense sector, China clearly hopes to create leapfrog development.
This interaction of private and military sectors should not only raise concerns for Western companies because of dual use technology, it will also make competition in this emerging market increasingly difficult. The "unlevel playing field" vis-à-vis Chinese companies, with which other industries have already been confronted, could soon extend to space.
The curse of fragmentation
To date, Europe has been a major player in the space domain. Traditionally, EU member countries have had full authority in space matters. In some areas they collaborate within the intergovernmental ESA, a non-EU body, but by and large European countries are hesitant to shift from their national space programs towards a joint strategy. To complicate matters further, Britain, one of Europe’s most present space nations, is leaving the EU. Its fragmentation leaves Europe vulnerable to growing dependency and stagnating innovation.
Brushing away the unfavorable Beidou cooperation, Europe is maintaining a collaborative stance towards China and still sounds very positive about future cooperation prospects. Embracing this opportunity, China has established an overseas satellite ground station in Sweden, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Luxembourg, and now hopes to export its Beidou navigational standard to Europe.
In an increasingly complex and militarized space sector, cooperation with other countries always entails a risk. Europe must avoid losing agency over sensitive space infrastructure and should be aware of becoming too dependent on foreign space technology, especially from systemic rivals. To prevent such scenarios, Europeans should acknowledge the strategic significance of the space domain, rather than treating it as a user-driven market. This would pave the way for long-term investment, something the sector has for a long time called for. When it comes to outer space, joint efforts are the only option for Europe to ensure its lasting independence.
The authors participated in the fifth annual MERICS European China Talent Program in May 2019, during which parts of the argumentation presented in this blogpost were developed. The authors bear sole responsibility for the content.