A Small Step for Beijing, but a Giant Leap for Earth

A Small Step for Beijing, but a Giant Leap for Earth
Photo by NASA / Unsplash

By Jack McGlinn, University of Chicago

“War is the continuation of politics by other means” - Carl von Clausewitz, On War 

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The second space race is on.

As scientific understanding grows and the potential discovery of extraterrestrial life draws nearer, space is starting to slowly drift from the serene realm of mysterious, breathtaking vastness that it once was into humanity’s next battleground. After all, there’s no better sign that mankind is becoming more and more comfortable with space than the fact that nations are trying to conquer it. China was the first nation to establish a space-specific branch of their military, Russia has been designing and testing Anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) for over a decade, and the United States has recently founded a Space Force of its own while private sector companies like SpaceX play an active role in conflicts worldwide.[1]

Increasing great-power competition in space is no longer a futuristic, intellectual plaything for policymakers, but an area of real concern that must be assessed and managed. After all, any sort of conflict at an extraterrestrial scale, no matter how small, could threaten Earth and humanity as we know it. A conflict in space could be on a more-than-nuclear scale: any war in space could not only carry an immense monetary cost but could also pose a planetary threat. Yet key to the pressing nature of space policy is also its relevance to Earth. Through communication, location services, missile warning systems, or even weather monitoring, states rely on their operations in space to gain an edge over opponents on the battlefield—the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine serves as a perfect example of this.[2] A major test of the liberal order will be to amend and expand existing laws and treaties surrounding space to prevent proliferation of men and materiel.

Like a fluid, conflict takes the shape of its container, and it is incumbent upon humanity to amend and draft laws which will regulate and control inevitable international tensions in space. If exploitable gaps exist in global space legislation, the results could prove disastrous and threaten to upend the already-tenuous state of peace between great powers.

In January of 2023, Djiboutian President Ismael Omar Guelleh revealed a memorandum of understanding to build a spaceport with the help of Chinese giant Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group (HKATG) in his nation’s coastal region of Obock, a move which holds major implications for global space policy.[3] The African nation’s close proximity to the equator makes it a propitious launch site, and, if completed, the 1-billion-dollar spaceport will be Africa’s first. Though seemingly a harmless collaboration between two nations, this move poses a major threat to the existing ecosystem of multilateral space diplomacy and reveals significant shortcomings in global space legislation that must be addressed. The project risks upsetting a previously fairly peaceful international space industry, where cooperation and non-proliferation took precedence over self-interest and saber-rattling. This must be interpreted not just as a legal nightmare, since China has violated existing international protocols, but also a failure: as Djibouti is not a signatory of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, currently the most crucial, comprehensive document in use, it is not only nationally inexperienced with space law but also wholly exempt from protocols designed to keep people safe.[4] This can lead to lenient, slapdash safety protocols and an international importation of Chinese expertise and management as Beijing projects its power and spacefaring expertise across the world. 

Furthermore, Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group’s eventual cession of the spaceport not only exposes further failures of international space law but also threatens equipping an unstable state with high-grade space infrastructure. HKATG has agreed to cede the spaceport to Djibouti after 30 years of its construction, which would mean allowing a nonsignatory of the O.S.T. to operate a space port and potentially circumvent key laws intended to keep people safe. The completed spaceport could make Djibouti a tasty target for powerful space-hopefuls in Northeastern Africa, such as Egypt and Ethiopia, which have recently adopted increasingly aggressive foreign policy strategies. Additionally, satellites and new experimental technologies launched with little oversight and slapdash R&D could prove disastrous for Earth. After all, in 2022, Chinese rocket boosters were projected to land in a region that contains 88% of the Earth’s population.[5] Such a crisis highlights the pressing need for strict regulation of the burgeoning global space industry, with actionable, concrete launch and reentry strategies which can save lives. For example, China could have engineered its Long March 5B to remain on a suborbital trajectory or equipped it with thrusters designed to control the rocket’s reentry location.[6] Incidents such as these highlight the importance of a robust system of international norms and regulations surrounding proper protocol for low Earth orbit and deep space as a whole.[7] Although the debris ended up landing in an isolated area, it is ultimately these types of accidents which could inadvertently serve as the casus belli for a major conflict. As competition between the United States and China rises in the future, a botched reentry due to lenient protocols could be disastrous during a period of heightened tensions and cause a war. Blinded by geopolitical tensions, a technological or logistical failure in space could be quickly misconstrued by China or the United States as a deliberate act of aggression. As with any major era of innovation in human transportation, mistakes in engineering, technology, communication, and planning in an early phase can lead to major conflicts and escalate political tensions. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before such an accident does occur. The situation in Djibouti serves as a small but poignant example of the perils of porous international law, which can allow rogue states to become spacefaring powers despite having few resources with which to support a space program and even less international accountability.[8]

Equally as important as this current development is its future implications. A Chinese space play in the Horn of Africa, especially when taken into consideration with existing laws, should be understood not just as an act of brazen self-interest and disregard for multilateral policies but a hedge against future international resistance.[9] Although existing international treaties must be expanded and amended to future-proof the spacefaring world against Chinese aggression, the world order must also be wary of the absurdity and ineffectiveness of multilateral treaties and documents in the face of undeterrable, self-interested actors. Even if Djibouti felt compelled to become a signatory of a modernized version of the Outer Space Treaty (which would never happen), there’s no guarantee that it would heed any of the rules and regulations without proper enforcement from the international community. In fact, it is incredibly unlikely that it would even ever feel compelled to join, especially now that China has established itself as a willing abettor of multilateral space policy circumvention. Looking ahead, the United States and the Western Liberal World Order must expect that China will turn a blind eye to international norms and maintain a similar level of aggression. This aggression is seemingly writ large across China’s entire space program: China’s Space Agency, the Chinese Manned Space Agency, is controlled by the Equipment Development Department of the Chinese Military.[10] Based on its  governmental organization and bureaucratic segmentation, it is clear that space is high-priority for the Chinese government—indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping understands space operations as a crucial arm of his vast One Belt, One Road Infrastructure Project.[11]

As a self-interested state,  China weaponizes its first-mover advantage: instead of waiting for acceptance from the world order—which is dominated by its enemies—it elects to move swiftly, motivated purely by self-interest and a need for extraterrestrial influence. Unfettered by the shackles of international norms, Beijing can ink foreign deals and erect equatorial spaceports with ease. This swift decisionmaking and unilateral approach affords China a clear advantage over the United States and its allies, who seem mired in multilateral commitments by comparison. Unless the liberal world order can find a way to counteract China, potentially through a unified push to build more spaceports and flex Western muscles in space, it will not be long before China bullies its way into the ascendancy of the global space race. This will undeniably accelerate the growing bipolarity of our world, paving the way for continued – and intensified – great power competition in space. As space becomes increasingly vital to land operations, increased power and influence in the final frontier will inevitably afford Beijing increased strength in terrestrial conflicts, such as a potential invasion of Taiwan.[12]

The situation in Obock will prove to be a true litmus test for both the international community and the United States as the current preeminent spacefaring power. By exploiting loopholes in international space legislation, such as the anachronistic Outer Space Treaty of 1967, China has clearly demonstrated its willingness to prioritize its national interests above global norms. As the international community navigates the complexities of space governance, it is crucial to reform existing frameworks to promote safe, sustainable space development, limit great power competition over space, and ensure the peaceful coexistence of all spacefaring nations. At the same time, it is also incumbent upon major powers such as the United States or European Union to recognize China’s first-mover advantage in making concrete, aggressive space policy moves and understand the limitations of liberalism when faced by an aggressive actor. In space, as on Earth, China aims high and plays hard.

[1] Kiernan Christ, “The Second Space Race: Democratic Outcomes for the Future of Space,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, January 25, 2022, https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2022/01/25/the-second-space-race-democratic-outcomes-for-the-future-of-space/, 1.

[2]  Mark Massa, “Early Lessons from the Russia-Ukraine War as a Space Conflict,” Atlantic Council, August 31, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/content-series/airpower-after-ukraine/early-lessons-from-the-russia-ukraine-war-as-a-space-conflict/.

[3] Marion Douet, “Djibouti Announces Construction of First Spaceport in Africa,” Le Monde.fr, February 20, 2023, https://www.lemonde.fr/en/le-monde-africa/article/2023/02/20/djibouti-announces-the-first-spaceport-in-africa_6016532_124.html.

[4] Benjamin Silverstein, “China’s Space Dream Is a Legal Nightmare,” Foreign Policy, April 21, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/04/21/china-space-law-treaty-djibouti-obock-launch-facility-ost/.

[5] “Uncontrolled Debris from Massive Chinese Booster Rocket Could Hit Earth within Days,” CBS News, July 27, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/debris-chinese-long-march-5b-y3-rocket-could-hit-earth-within-days/.

[6] “Uncontrolled Debris,” CBS News, July 27, 2022.

[7] W. Robert Pearson and Benjamin L. Schmitt, “The Crisis in Space,” Foreign Policy, May 15, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/05/15/space-junk-rocket-debris-long-march-starlink-elon-musk-moon-asteroids-travel-militarization-resource-competition/.

[8] “A Planned Spaceport in Djibouti May Give China a Boost,” The Economist, accessed January 30, 2024, https://www.economist.com/china/2023/01/19/a-planned-spaceport-in-djibouti-may-give-china-a-boost.

[9] Silverstein, “China’s Space Dream,” 2023.

[10] Lara Seligman, “‘The 21st-Century Space Race Is On,’” Foreign Policy, April 10, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/10/the-21st-century-space-race-is-on-michael-waltz-space-force/.

[11] Michael Sheetz, “Investing in Space: How the Pentagon Sizes up China’s Military Strength in Space,” CNBC, October 26, 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/10/26/investing-in-space-the-pentagon-sizes-up-chinas-military-strength.html.

[12] William S. Cooperider, “Integrating Space Operations at the Tactical Level,” U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, accessed March 2, 2024, https://www.moore.army.mil/infantry/magazine/issues/2021/Summer/pdf/10_Cooperider_txt.pdf.