Is China gearing up for war in space?

Leaked CIA documents reveal China may be building attack satellites
05 May 2023

Interview with 

Isabelle Hilton


this is a picture of a satellite orbiting Earth


The competition between China and the United States is nothing new, but Beijing’s attempt to rapidly develop a space programme has given rise to claims that the world’s two most important powers are embarking on a new “space race”. It follows the leak recently of a top-secret CIA intelligence report, which suggests that China is building cyberweapons and “attack satellites” capable of destroying rival American space assets, probably with an eye on acquiring Taiwan. So, should we be concerned? Journalist and leading China expert, Isabel Hilton...

Isabel - China has had a space program for many years, but what's changed really is the geopolitical relationship between China and the United States. And what that has done is raise the question of space as a new domain for warfare. So any Chinese investment in space, in space technologies, in its ballistic program, in its satellite program will be interpreted by US Security Services as a potential threat because that's their job. They're there to monitor what the potential enemy is doing. And since China and the United States are now in confrontation, then they are concerned now, how concerned should we be? Well, it's obviously worrying that space would become a warfare domain. After all, all of modern life depends on space technology. So when those things become possibly a theater of conflict, we all have to be concerned. If you are looking at what you could call in rather old fashioned terms, a space race, then the United States is still a long way ahead of China. China's investing, but the United States is investing more and has invested over a longer period of time, has more technology and more partners crucially. So it's not really a question of China overtaking the United States tomorrow, but as any defense establishment does, they think of the future and they try to plan for it.

Chris - You mentioned partners, and that's interesting because China has very few, they're not very space enabled, but what America's tending to do is invest in projects which are globally reaching. Their aim is to do things like, let's get to the moon and see what that can do for the world. Whereas China seems to be sending out the message, let's get to the moon and see what that can do for China.

Isabel - You are absolutely right and the Chinese based program is substantially military and defense. And even with the question of satellites, which are, you know, GPS or communication satellites, the whole program is still under the control of the military. Whereas if you look at the payload, for example, of American rockets, it's substantially civilian.

Chris - I've been reading about some really quite scary stuff like, it's the wrong analogy to use, but satellites that are almost like Russian dolls with satellites hiding inside them where you can deploy a baby satellite that comes out that might attack something else. People are saying the next war will be fought from space.

Isabel - It looks very much like a military program. And I mean the problem is that destroying each other's space as assets is a doomsday weapon. I mean, that is very, very serious damage. So unlike the nuclear programs, we don't have generations of talks and treaties to examine what would be a catastrophe for all humanity and seek to limit it. We don't have that in space. I mean, space is not meant to be militarised. However, we seem to be nudging that. And if you look at what is being said, for example, about a potential war over Taiwan, which is probably the most likely conflict in the near future, it is very much discussed that China could and might seek to destroy all American assets in the region very early on. And that would include satellites and that puts people back past the machine age. So it is very dangerous to regard this as something that could be done casually and without consequences.

Chris - The one thing that certainly has changed in China is there's now a burgeoning middle class. There's been a huge flow of money because we are all buying stuff that they're making and many are saying, what would President Xi get from a war because it will cost him money and it will certainly cost him income from the rest of the world who would do to China what we've done to Russia with various sanctions and so on. So at the moment people are arguing that we need to continue to trade with China and keep the money flowing because otherwise they will be incentivised to move in the direction that you've been saying.

Isabel - I think the worrying thing is that if you read what is being written in China in official documents under Xi Jinping, it is a very, very different tone from his predecessors. More than 10 years in, he's still purging people. He seems very fearful of his position. And if you translate that into geopolitics, the Chinese state seems to regard the United States as a completely hostile power. All the documentation that they produce implies that there is nothing to be done by negotiating with the United States because the United States is determined to cripple China. Now, once you get into that sort of confrontation, it's very difficult to see the path towards mutual tolerance, if you like, mutual understanding. And so the fact is, we actually don't know what Xi Jinping's risk appetite is. If you are afraid for the party's position and your own position, then things that could look like a gamble become possible options. And we've seen that with Putin. You know, there was frankly not a lot to be gained for Putin by invading Ukraine. He lost Nord Stream 1, Nord stream 2, he lost his major customer in the European Union, but he did it anyway. So it's very difficult to say with certainty that there are no circumstances under which Xi Jinping would not contemplate a war.

Chris - Is it tech that's the magnet for them? Is it what Taiwan have got - advanced microchip manufacturers and so on? Is that what they're after? Because there are some things which while they're very good at mass manufacturing, the Chinese have not got, and this is things like microchip manufacture. It's like the advanced methodology that we use to make jet engines and so on. And there's a reason why there are three big manufacturers of jet engine parts and none of them are in China and none of them want to open a factory in China.

Isabel - Well, of course the big asset that Taiwan has is a company called TSMC, which manufactures about 60% of the world's most advanced microchips. Now, China can produce much lower level chips, but it's highly dependent both on American supplies and on Taiwan. I don't think that is the primary motive for seeking to recover Taiwan. Xi wants to be seen as a historic figure. There's only one big job left, and that is, as the party would put it, the recovery of Taiwan. Now of course, the Taiwanese see this very differently and because we've had perhaps now two efforts at making work of Deng Shao Ping's formula of 'one country, two systems' once in Tiber and once in Hong Kong, and they both ended with Chinese repression. The Taiwanese are extremely wary of Chinese promises, and they will seek to preserve the status quo as long as they can. And as time goes by, the pressure on Xi Jinping to change that status quo for political reasons will grow. TSMC could be a hostage in this. The world's microchips are are very much at risk here again, it's a reason that the entire world needs to be concerned about the fate of Taiwan.


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