The New Space Race: China vs. the U.S. By Erik Seedhouse. Chichester, UK: Springer-Praxis, 2010. Acknowledgments, figures, tables, abbreviations, illustrations, appendices, index. 256 Pages. ISBN: 13-978-1441908797. Paperback, $34.95 USD.
Springer-Praxis has been churning out these books on spaceflight for some time and the shelf is now filled with a long list of titles, some of which are excellent and others of which are embarrassments. This work is neither in the excellent nor the embarrassment category. The author is not a Chinese scholar and does not have the language skills necessary to provide a truly insightful understanding of the Chinese effort in space. Accordingly, this is a basic discussion of the space efforts of China with the made up—and it is completely artificial—concept of a space race with the United States.
Erik Seedhouse expresses through this work a neoconservative perspective on the relations between the U.S. and China at all levels, and this ensures that he views competition as the only manner in which to deal with China in space. Hence, a race between China and the U.S. seems to be the only lens through which he can perceive the future, and make no mistake this is not a work of history but rather a sustained screed against collaboration with China in the future. His analysis is based on hawkish discussions in national security space circles, and seemingly on little else.
This discussion leads naturally to the central policy debate relative to national security space in the last twenty years: the weaponization of space. For more than fifty years the world has engaged in activity in outer space for military, scientific, and commercial purposes, but without placing weapons there or engaging in serious efforts to target objects in space. Working effectively during the Cold War, since then the space arena has witnessed the entry of many more actors and a much broader array of vested interests, including China, resulting in a variety of positions regarding future space activities. Almost 700 spacecraft are operating in continuous Earth orbit, each serving a range of scientific, military, civilian, and commercial uses. And the hegemonic status of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia has been demolished in the last 25 years. Over 60 new launches take place every year, and at least 50 nations had payloads in orbit in 2013.
In this increasingly chaotic environment with so many actors the United States remains the dominant player and wants to ensure that it does so indefinitely, hence the desire to protect national assets. There may be a range of ways in which that might be accomplished, but for observers like Seedhouse the answer to maintaining American suzerainty in space is through domination at all levels. He would agree with the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization which concluded in 2001: “We know that every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different. Given this virtual certainty, the United States must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space.”
For years we have heard that China is on the verge of becoming the dominant nation in the world. It’s massive population, its rapid industrialization, its expanding economy, its large untapped reservoir of natural resources, and a host of other strengths have been deployed as evidence for this seemingly inevitable transformation of superpower relations around the globe. Erik Seedhouse believes that China represents an enormous threat to American activities in space. Perhaps it will journey to the Moon, claim it for the PRC, and exploit its resources for national benefit. Such a conclusion is naïve at best, and Seedhouse does not go quite that far, but competition seems to be his only answer to the efforts of the Chinese space program. And those efforts have been lackluster thus far. For all of the capability that this program has developed in the last decade-plus, it still has very far to go before missions of great complexity will become feasible. Moreover, the Chinese space program would have to do something no one else has been successful in doing before it can send Taikonauts to the Moon, figure out a reason for doing so. Needless to say, such a mission is problematic.
Where Seedhouse does have some traction with his anti-Chinese concerns is in ballistic missile technology and the capability of anti-satellite systems. China earned the censure of the world community in January 2007 when Fengyun-3A, a Chinese polar-orbiting weather satellite, was deliberately impacted by a ground-launched rocket in an apparent test of an anti-satellite weapon. This single event added more than 2,000 pieces of debris to low earth orbit, about 30 percent of the total amount of debris at that time.
This set off everyone with concerns that space warfare might be the order of the future, with China leading the way. Seedhouse also sets his hair on fire about all of this in his chapter 9, and argues against any cooperative ventures between China and the United States. Engagement finds no place in the space arena here, according to Seedhouse.
Alternatively, it makes sense to recognize that the place of the United States vis à vis China is the best one to be in from the standpoint of national security space issues and therefore finding a way to maintain the status quo is not a bad future. Taking a hard line in the national security space regime against China may be both unnecessary and potentially disastrous. The U.S. has pursued a three point program relative to space security issues, and this appears both prudent and in retrospect quite prescient. First, the U.S. has ensured that peer competitors did not step beyond the space technological capabilities that this nation possessed through a range of hard and soft power efforts, treaties and arms control measures, and other initiatives. Engagement with China is the primary means to achieving success in this arena. Second, the U.S. has long made clear that it would take harsh action should a competitor alter the national security regime in space. A long history of declaratory statements condemning actions viewed as belligerent in space and warning of appropriate repercussions has helped to create the current favorable situation for the United States. A continuation of those methodologies is appropriate and completely expected by the other nations of the globe. Doing this with China remains a major strategy for the future. Third, the U.S. has pursued on the whole a reasonable program of research and development (R&D) to ensure that any rivals capabilities can be destroyed if necessary. This has taken the form of ASAT and ballistic missile defense projects, directed energy weapons development, targeting of ground infrastructure, and other objectives.
Overall, prudent engagement with China represents a reasonable approach for the future. Erik Seedhouse does not see engagement as legitimate in any way and instead seeks a space race that would look much like the 1960s space race with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, there is little reason to think it will turn out in a similar fashion. The New Space Race: China vs. the U.S. is a book that makes the case that competition is the only way forward. I hope Seedhouse is wrong on that score.