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China-Russia Space Cooperation

The Strategic, Military, Diplomatic, and Economic Implications of a Growing Relationship
Kevin PollpeterElizabeth BarrettJeffrey EdmondsAmanda KerriganAndrew Taffer
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Over the past two decades, the relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia has transitioned from what some described as a relationship of convenience to what both countries now call a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The growing strategic partnership between China and Russia is reflected in a burgeoning China-Russia space relationship. Once the dominant power in the space relationship, Russia now appears to be taking a secondary role. China’s growing expertise in space, matched with the financial capabilities to sustain a large and growing space enterprise, signals not only China’s rise as a major space power but also the geopolitical transition taking place between China, Russia, and the United States.

Key findings

China-Russia space relations are indicative of a broader effort to build mutual trust, further Chinese and Russian influence and counter Western political and economic pressure, facilitate multipolarization, and achieve common national security goals.
Any limitations of the China-Russia relationship do not appear to be significant enough to derail the broader relationship. Indeed, not only do Beijing and Moscow seem to have successfully compartmentalized such irritants, but bilateral cooperation in sensitive dual-use areas of scientific and technological research suggests that they may be gradually overcoming—or are working to overcome—their mutual mistrust.

In this context, China-Russia space cooperation is intended to enhance each country in several ways:

  • Strategically, through joint efforts that balance against U.S. dominance
  • Militarily, through combined military exercises, technology transfer, coordinated actions, and confidence-building measures
  • Diplomatically, through proposed activities that demonstrate Chinese and Russian space leadership separate from U.S. cooperative space frameworks
  • Economically, through technology transfer agreements and joint development efforts that reduce the technological and budgetary risk of space programs and promote space products and services
  • Technologically, through agreements that provide alternatives to Western technologies

China-Russia space relations indicate deepening trust between the two countries.

While not an alliance, the burgeoning cooperation between Russia and China on issues of space and space-related technology has a breadth and depth that indicate a growing strategic partnership. The expanding and increasingly sensitive nature of China-Russia space cooperation may make it more difficult for the United States to influence the two countries’ cooperative space activities.

  • A 2019 agreement to transfer sensitive missile defense technology allows China access to technologies dominated by the United States and Russia.
  • A 2017 agreement covering intellectual property rights (IPR) protection on the transfer of space technologies suggests that Russian concerns over Chinese technology theft, a hindrance to previous China-Russia technological cooperation, have been assuaged or at least suggests that Russia has come to accept technology theft as an inherent risk of doing business in China. It is unknown to what extent the funding shortfalls in Russia’s space program provided China with leverage in these negotiations.
  • Depending on the level of cooperation, a 2021 joint lunar exploration memorandum of understanding (MOU) could tie the two countries together in ways that make success contingent on both countries’ participation.
  • Although the improvement in China-Russia space relations is a sign of the increasing trust between the two countries, U.S. political and economic sanctions against both countries’ space programs also likely play a role in bringing the two countries closer together.

China-Russia space relations indicate an effort to balance against U.S. dominance.

China-Russian space cooperation is driven by the same forces that drive the overall strategic relationship. While the two countries do not share completely overlapping security concerns, they do share a strong desire to counter U.S. leadership, including in outer space. They share concerns over interpretation of U.S. space initiatives and see U.S. space-based capabilities and dominance, especially anything related to missile defense, as threatening to their strategic nuclear arsenals.

China-Russia space relations indicate an effort to deter and counter the U.S. militarily.

China-Russia space cooperation involves activities related to national defense. These include cooperative activities on ballistic missile defense (BMD), space debris monitoring, and satellite navigation.

Ballistic missile defense

China possesses BMD systems that have capabilities similar to those of the U.S. Patriot and Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems. Unofficial Chinese sources have linked an interest in developing more advanced BMD capabilities to the withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces agreement and the U.S. development of long-range missile capabilities. China has stated opposition to global missile defense systems, and it is unknown to what extent BMD cooperation is limited to tactical and regional capabilities.

  • Russian assistance could aid China in developing ground- and space-based missile warning systems that would raise the effectiveness of China’s existing missile defense systems and speed the development of new systems.
  • Combined Chinese-Russian air and missile defense exercises indicate an effort to improve defenses against ballistic and cruise missile attack and demonstrate the growing closeness of the relationship. It is unknown to what extent the combined exercises reflect an intent to develop an actual combined air and missile defense capability.
  • We found no evidence to support the speculation of media and subject matter experts concerning the development of a joint missile early warning system. Such an agreement would be a significant step forward in the two countries’ relationship, making it similar to an alliance. Cooperation in this area could create mutually supportive relationships that not only would provide each country with enhanced capabilities but would also impose shared responsibilities that could increase the risk of escalation by drawing both countries into conflict with the United States.

    A hypothetical joint missile early warning system would complicate U.S. efforts to deny, degrade, or destroy Chinese or Russian BMD systems. Depending on the extent to which the Chinese and Russian systems were mutually supportive, attacks intended to suppress either the Chinese or Russian BMD system individually would risk escalating the conflict by involving both countries.

Space debris monitoring

China and Russia signed an agreement on space debris monitoring and data exchange in November 2018. Little is known about this cooperation, but it could involve two activities:

  • Technical cooperation to develop space debris monitoring capabilities
  • Mechanisms to allow for notification of conjunction events between spacecraft and debris

Due to the dual-use nature of space debris monitoring, China-Russia cooperation could have potential military applications. The similarity of space debris monitoring capabilities to military space surveillance capabilities could enhance the ability of both countries to collect intelligence on adversary space systems and aid in the tracking and targeting of U.S. satellites. The development of space surveillance capabilities could potentially leverage cooperation on missile early warning systems.

Satellite navigation

China-Russia cooperation in satellite navigation appears to be one of the most robust space-related activities between the two countries. In 2014, the two countries signed an MOU on satellite navigation cooperation concerning compatibility and interoperability, and the establishment of ground stations in each other’s countries, among other issues. China-Russia cooperation on satellite navigation could provide an alternative signal in the event that either country’s national satellite navigation system was denied or degraded. U.S. actions to deny either China or Russia satellite navigation would have to take into account each country’s access to both Beidou and GLONASS as well as the escalatory implications of denying both systems. Promoting interoperability between the civil signals of satellite navigation systems is common practice, however. The United States and China signed a joint statement on civil signal compatibility and interoperability in 2017, and the European Galileo system and Beidou are interoperable.

China-Russia space cooperation effort is likely intended to increase Chinese and Russian influence in international space diplomacy.

In March 2021, China and Russia signed an MOU on joint lunar exploration, covering the establishment of a lunar research base in lunar orbit and/or on the surface of the Moon. Although not acknowledged by either China or Russia, cooperation on lunar exploration and their openness to additional participants appears to be a response to the U.S.-led Artemis Accords that established a set of principles for the exploration and commercial use of space. Neither China nor Russia has introduced a similar set of principles individually or jointly, though.

China-Russia cooperation does not appear to significantly advance commercial competitiveness.

China-Russia economic space cooperation appears to be most pronounced in satellite navigation. Agreements to increase interoperability and compatibility will likely facilitate the use of the Beidou and GLONASS satellite navigation systems in both countries.

China-Russia space cooperation indicates a desire to reduce technological and budgetary risk.

For China, this means acquiring technology from Russia, especially rocket engine technology that would be too complicated or too costly to develop alone. Technology transfer flows both ways, however. Russia’s interest in Chinese aerospace electronic components suggests the intent to create an alternative supply chain for its space industry, necessary because the European Union imposed sanctions on dual-use components to Russia after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. China-Russia technological cooperation also reflects the Russian aerospace industry’s need for funding. Chinese purchases of Russian technology likely provide a much-needed infusion of cash to Russian aerospace companies. China may also look to the partnership as a way to reduce the budgetary demands of space exploration, given the cost and few tangible benefits associated with lunar exploration.

China-Russia space relations indicate a shifting power dynamic between the two countries.

For much of the history of China-Russia space relations, Russia has been the leading space power in the relationship, providing much-needed technology and know-how to a small and inexperienced Chinese space program. This relationship dynamic appears to be undergoing a fundamental shift because of China’s improving technological capabilities and sustained funding. China now appears to be positioning itself to be the leading space power in the relationship in which Russia plays an important, but nonetheless secondary, role as a provider of capabilities to Chinese-led space endeavors.

A lack of transparency to outside observers adds uncertainty to determining the true nature of China-Russia space relations.

China-Russia space cooperation lacks transparency. As their cooperation in defense-related fields has deepened, it has also become more secretive. Much of the media reporting only mentions signed agreements and provides little specific information. Although the number and types of cooperation agreements indicate a growing strategic partnership, it is possible that some or many of the agreements examined here lack substance, were not fully carried out, or were cancelled. Alternatively, the lack of transparency could also hide a more substantive relationship than the one presented here. Either finding would necessarily call for a reevaluation of the China-Russia space relationship.

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  • Pages: 105
  • Document Number: DES-2023-U-035745-Final
  • Publication Date: 4/25/2023
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