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China’s Role in Making Outer Space More Congested, Contested, and Competitive

Kevin Pollpeter
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This paper addresses how China’s rapidly expanding space program challenges U.S. access to space. In 2011, the U.S. National Security Space Strategy described outer space as “congested, contested, and competitive.” As more countries operate in space, the United States has raised concerns over the sustainability of the space environment, the proliferation of space weapons, and its ability to remain commercially competitive in space. One of the most important countries contributing to the congested, contested, and competitive nature of space is China.

Key Findings

  • China is a major contributor to space congestion. Although Chinese satellites make up nearly 7 percent of the total number of satellites in orbit, China accounts for nearly 25 percent of the total amount of space debris, mainly due to its 2007 antisatellite test. The increased risk of collisions between spacecraft and between debris and spacecraft could raise the costs of operating in orbit. These costs could include replacing spacecraft more often because of collisions and over-engineering spacecraft to make them more resilient.
  • China is developing a wide range of counterspace technologies, including directascent kinetic kill vehicles (KKVs), co-orbital satellites, directed-energy weapons, jammers, and cyber capabilities. Taken together, Chinese counterspace and counterspace-related activities likely represent the intention to undermine the U.S. military’s conventional advantage by threatening satellites from the ground to
    geosynchronous orbit (GEO).
  • China is placing increasing importance on its commercial space sector. China currently has more than 160 commercial space companies, offering products and services ranging from satellite manufacturing to orbital launch. Chinese mercantilist industrial policies could result in China offering cheaper alternatives to U.S. space products and services. Chinese satellite developers may become more prominent as the demand for smaller, less sophisticated, and less expensive satellites lowers customer requirements and expectations for functionality and reliability.
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Reproduction and printing is subject to the Copyright Act of 1976 and applicable treaties of the United States. This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This publication is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited. Permission is given to duplicate this document for personal, academic, or governmental use only, as long as it is unaltered and complete however, it is requested that reproductions credit the author and China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). Permission is required from the China Aerospace Studies Institute to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial use. For information on reprint and linking permissions, please contact the China Aerospace Studies Institute.

Cleared for Public Release, Distribution unlimited.

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  • Publication Date: 9/30/2021