On November 15, 2021, Russia tested a direct-ascent antisatellite (ASAT) missile, hitting a Russian satellite and creating more than 1,500 trackable pieces of orbital debris. The resulting debris endangered crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS), forcing the crew, including its Russian cosmonauts, to seek shelter. This debris will also create new hazards for another leading spacefaring nation: China. With constellations of satellites and a decades-long project to construct a Chinese space station in low Earth orbit (LEO) nearing fruition, Russia’s ASAT test threatens Chinese taikonauts and satellites operating in LEO. Yet unlike the United States’ forceful condemnation of Russia’s ASAT test, Chinese officials have been conspicuously silent regarding the test.
China’s handling of this incident highlights both the strategic logic and potential tensions at play in the China-Russia space relationship. From diplomatic cooperation on space governance to plans for a joint lunar base, China and Russia are increasingly cooperating with one another in outer space. This closer alignment between the two powers can cut costs for expensive, albeit potentially lucrative, endeavors such as lunar exploration, and can help balance against the United States. Yet there remain significant obstacles to China-Russia space cooperation. Russian fears of Chinese technological theft and the prospect of playing second fiddle to China will continue to strain the relationship. Moreover, Russia’s ASAT test demonstrates that Russia is willing to jeopardize China’s space interests when doing so serves Russian ones. Thus, although a close China-Russia space relationship would pose a formidable challenge to the United States, this tightening partnership is not a foregone conclusion. Mistrust and nationalism will make China-Russia space cooperation far from seamless.
Sources of China-Russia Space Cooperation
To some extent, China’s muted response to Russia’s ASAT test is straightforward. China is developing similar ASAT weapons and risks appearing hypocritical when its own 2007 ASAT test was the largest debris-creating event in history. Yet China’s silence on this test also underscores a deeper political challenge: the delicate management of China’s relationship with Russia.
China and Russia have a long yet complicated relationship when it comes to space. At the very outset of its space program, China benefitted from Soviet assistance, including receiving technical advisors and even an out-of-date R-2 ballistic missile that China reverse engineered, and that would evolve into China’s Long March rockets. Yet Soviet assistance to China’s space program diminished as its bilateral relationship deteriorated. Mao viewed Khrushchev as a “revisionist” and unfaithful to Marxism-Leninism. As Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated, the Soviet Union withdrew its economic and technical advisors from China in 1960. Ultimately, the Sino-Soviet relationship deteriorated to such a degree that the two countries nearly went to war with one another in 1969, during a dispute over Zhenbao Island—and Khrushchev even considered using nuclear weapons against China. In this environment, China’s space program could no longer rely on Soviet assistance, but had to instead focus more on indigenous development.
China-Russia relations improved considerably after the Cold War. As China pursued market-oriented reforms in the post-Mao era, it was no longer beholden to a dogmatic interpretation of Marxism-Leninism. Moreover, China sought to develop its space sector and, in 1992, began pursuing a human space program. As China’s space ambitions increased, Russia appeared to be a natural partner for China, offering expertise and experience in space. Moreover, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was in desperate need of funding. This confluence of needs provided Russia an opportunity to secure much-needed capital. Consequently, in the post–Cold War era, China benefitted considerably from Russian assistance. Perhaps most visibly, everything from the capsule to the spacesuits for China’s first spaceflight mission were based on Russian designs.
Today, on Earth and in space, the China-Russia relationship is driven by an alignment of interests and an attempt to balance the more militarily powerful United States. As the US military relies the most on space technologies to project power globally, Russia and China are incentivized to develop capabilities to negate these advantages. Using counterspace weapons, Russia and China can threaten American satellites, potentially deterring American military action or denying the United States space-enabled advantages (e.g., communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, and precision-guided munitions) in the event of a conflict.
Cooperation in space also provides China and Russia a means to cut expenses and pursue potentially lucrative endeavors such as mining lunar resources, while offsetting the steep upfront costs required for these missions. While it may be expensive to build a base on the moon, jointly developing a base may provide both states with a more cost-effective means to exploit lunar resources. More broadly, where Russia offers deep expertise and technological know-how, China—the world’s second-largest economy—has resources at its disposal.
China and Russia have shared interests that will deepen their cooperation in space. Both Russia and China have agreed to jointly carry out robotic exploration of an asteroid in 2024, signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a lunar base together, and the two countries established the China-Russia Consortium space weather center in Beijing. China and Russia have also cooperated diplomatically, promoting the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, which the United States has criticized since Russia and China have both developed and tested ASAT weapons. Through closer cooperation with one another, Russia and China could provide a powerful counterweight to the United States in outer space.
Fault Lines in the China-Russia Space Relationship
However, despite mutual interests in cost cutting and balancing the United States, there are reasons to be skeptical about the prospect of the two countries further integrating their space programs. While discord between Russia and China is by no means a foregone conclusion, there are important fault lines in the Russia-China relationship, which may undermine their alignment in outer space. Problems ranging from nationalism to mistrust may pose significant obstacles to further integration of and coordination between Russian and Chinese space programs.
First, both Russian and Chinese nationalism will pose an enormous challenge to cooperation between the two powers. Nationalism remains a powerful force in world politics—and has often led states to prioritize ego over interest and suffer self-inflicted wounds. Nationalism and rejuvenation are key components of Russian and Chinese regime legitimation strategies. In the past, anxieties about rank and position created a wedge between the two powers. During the Cold War, Mao’s increasing mistrust of the Soviet Union was driven, in part, by perceived disrespect that China was being treated as a junior partner. While China is no longer ruled by an all-powerful and capricious leader such as Mao, nationalist pride may still override strategic considerations. What pressures would Chinese leaders face if debris from Russia’s ASAT test collided with one of China’s satellites, or worse, with a symbol of national pride, such as China’s space station? Similarly, Russia may become resentful of assuming the role of junior partner to China. How will the country that launched Sputnik, put the first human in orbit, and raced the United States to the moon accept a further fall from the top?
Even if both countries can resist nationalist impulses, mistrust will strain their partnership. Space technologies are typically costly and difficult to develop and have dual-use purposes—which poses a challenge to cooperation. Yet mistrust between Russia and China is even deeper. How can Russia and China trust they won’t be taken advantage of by the other? For example, in the 1990s, Russia felt burned when China undercut Russian profits by reverse engineering its space technology. More recently, in 2019, Russian state conglomerate Rostec accused China of copying a wide range of Russian military hardware. Russia would, thus, be naïve to assume that a space relationship would truly represent “win-win cooperation” that equally serves Russian interests.
Similarly, why would Russia provide the same level of support to future projects such as the planned lunar base, when the much wealthier China has considerably more resources to contribute to the project? Chinese leaders would also be gullible to assume that Russia would not free ride on Chinese contributions in any future projects. Likewise, as has been demonstrated most recently with Russia’s ASAT test, Russia is more than willing to jeopardize Chinese interests when it is in Russia’s self-interest. Although China may be incentivized to strike American satellites in wartime, China has no interest in LEO becoming even more congested in peacetime than it already is. As China continues to become more dependent on space capabilities, the costs of such reckless behavior as Russia’s ASAT test will only increase for China.
Policy Options for the United States
A deepening relationship between these two countries could have adverse consequences for American interests. From potential coordination of military space activities to burden sharing for lunar resource extraction, a closer Russia-China relationship could pose a significant challenge to American interests. Likewise, Russia and China could offer an alternative set of rules and norms for governing everything from the weaponization of space to lunar resources. This alternative order could either directly undermine American interests or dilute the norms that the United States promotes.
When responding to this challenge, the United States is limited in its possible responses. While there may be fissures in the China-Russia relationship, there are reasons to be doubtful that a wedge strategy would work. Owing to its strained relationship with China, the United States is limited in its ability to use its China relationship as leverage against Russia. A closer US-China relationship, for example, could lead Russia to fear that China is taking its place at the table of space powers. However, the United States has a highly restricted relationship with China in space—codified most notably in the body of legislation known as the “Wolf Amendment.” The United States has had very limited cooperation with China, for example, sharing data regarding the “far side” of the moon. Similarly, Biden administration officials have hinted at interest in engaging China further in space and expressed interest in improving crisis communications with China. Nonetheless, the United States would need congressional support to overturn the Wolf Amendment and it would likely need to improve the broader bilateral relationship with China before considering altering its space policy. As for Russia, Sergey Radchenko argues that Moscow is not in a “bad marriage” with Beijing, and receives economic and political gains from cooperating with China.
Regardless of whether Russia and China can overcome these strains on their bilateral relationship, the United States will be best positioned to respond to this challenge if it assumes a greater leadership position in promoting rules and norms for promoting a more sustainable space environment. While the Artemis Accords offer a valuable step in this direction, these rules will gain greater credibility in the international system if they are promoted through traditional multilateral venues such as the United Nations. From the weaponization of space to debris mitigation and resource management, the United States should begin shaping the rules of the game rather than waiting for Russia and China to do so. Even if Russia and China can overcome the profound obstacles in their bilateral space relationship, the United States will be better suited if it shapes the rules and norms of appropriate space behavior now while it is in a relatively more advantageous position than it may be tomorrow.
While the United States should not be complacent about the potential challenge posed by Russian-Chinese alignment in space, neither should it exaggerate the threats it faces. The Russia-China relationship has significant fault lines that should be recognized, which provide an opportunity for undermining this potential balancing behavior. As Russia’s ASAT test demonstrates, Russia is more than willing to pursue its interests at the expense of China’s. Russia’s shortsightedness could provide an opportunity for the United States to play the two powers against one another. Nonetheless, should such efforts fail, the United States will be better able to respond to this challenge in the future if it negotiates for favorable rules and norms now, while it is still a relatively powerful actor.
Dr. R. Lincoln Hines is an assistant professor for the West Space Seminar at the United States Air War College. He earned a PhD in government from Cornell University and his research focuses on the role of domestic politics, nationalism, and prestige in Chinese security and space ambitions.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or those of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the Air University and the United States Air Force.
Image credit: Airman 1st Class Aubree Milks, US Air Force