Space and Sea Lane Control in Chinese Strategy
By: George Friedman, Stratfor.comJanuary 26, 2007
by George Friedman

Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, citing U.S. intelligence sources, has reported that China successfully tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) system. According to the report, which U.S. officials later confirmed, a satellite was launched, intercepted and destroyed a Feng Yun 1C weather satellite, also belonging to China, on Jan. 11. The weather satellite was launched into polar orbit in 1999. The precise means of destruction is not clear, but it appears to have been a kinetic strike (meaning physical intercept, not laser) that broke the satellite into many pieces. The U.S. government wants to reveal as much information as possible about this event in order to show its concern—and to show the Chinese how closely the Americans are monitoring their actions.

The Jan. 17 magazine report was not the first U.S. intelligence leak about Chinese ASAT capabilities. In August 2006, the usual sources reported that China had directed lasers against U.S. satellites. It has become clear that China is in the process of acquiring the technology needed to destroy or blind satellites in at least low-Earth orbit, which is where intelligence-gathering satellites tend to operate.

Two things are noteworthy in this. The first is that China is moving toward a space warfare capability. The second is that it is not the Chinese who are announcing these moves (they maintained official silence until Jan. 23, when they confirmed the ASAT test), but Washington that is aggressively publicizing Chinese actions. These leaks are not accidental: The Bush administration wants it known that China is doing these things, and the Chinese are quite content with having it known. China is not hiding its efforts, and U.S. officials are using those efforts to create a sense of urgency within the United States about Chinese military capabilities (something that, in budgetary debates in Washington, ultimately benefits the U.S. Air Force).

China has multiple space projects under way, but the one it is currently showcasing—and on which the United States is focusing—involves space-denial capabilities. That makes sense, given China's geopolitical position. It does not face a significant land threat: With natural barriers like the Himalayas or the Siberian wastes on its borders, foreign aggression into Chinese territory is unlikely. However, China's ability to project force is equally limited by these barriers. The Chinese have interests in Central Asia, where they might find power projection an enticing consideration, but this inevitably would bring them into conflict with the Russians. China and Russia have an interest in containing the only superpower, the United States, and fighting among themselves would play directly into American hands. Therefore, China will project its power subtly in Central Asia; it will not project overt military force there. Its army is better utilized in guaranteeing China's internal cohesiveness and security than in engaging in warfare.

Geopolitics and Naval Power
Its major geopolitical problem is, instead, maritime power. China—which published a defense white paper shortly before the ASAT test—has become a great trading nation, with the bulk of its trade moving by sea. And not only does it export an enormous quantity of goods, it increasingly imports raw materials. The sea lanes on which it depends are all controlled by the U.S. Navy, right up to China's brown water. Additionally, Beijing retains an interest in Taiwan, which it claims as a part of China. But whatever threats China makes against Taiwan ring hollow: The Chinese navy is incapable of forcing its way across the Taiwan Strait, incapable of landing a multidivisional force on Taiwan and, even if it were capable of that, it could not sustain that force over time. That is because the U.S. Navy—using airpower, missiles, submarines and surface vessels—could readily cut the lines of supply and communication between China and Taiwan.

The threat to China is the U.S. Navy. If the United States wanted to break China, its means of doing so would be naval interdiction. This would not have to be a close-in interdiction. The Chinese import oil from around the world and ship their goods around the world. U.S. forces could choose to stand off, far out of the range of Chinese missiles—or reconnaissance platforms that would locate U.S. ships—and interdict the flow of supplies there, at a chokepoint such as the Strait of Malacca. This strategy would have far-reaching implications, of course: the Malacca Strait is essential not only to China, but to the United States and the rest of the world. But the point is that the U.S. Navy could interdict China's movement of goods far more readily than China could interdict American movement of goods.

For China, freedom of the seas has become a fundamental national interest. Right now, China's access to the sea lanes depends on U.S. acquiescence. The United States has shown no interest whatsoever in cutting off that access—quite the contrary. But China, like any great power, does not want its national security held hostage to the goodwill of another power—and particularly not one that it regards as unpredictable and as having interests quite different from its own. To put it simply, the United States currently dominates the world's oceans. This is a source of enormous power, and the United States will not give up that domination voluntarily. China, for its part, cannot live with that state of affairs indefinitely. China may not be able to control the sea itself, but it cannot live forever with U.S. control. Therefore, it requires a sea lane-denial strategy.

Quite naturally, China has placed increased emphasis on naval development. But the construction of a traditional navy—consisting of aircraft carriers, nuclear attack submarines and blue-water surface systems, capable of operating over great distances—is not only enormously expensive, but something that will take decades to construct. It is not just a matter of shipbuilding. It is also a matter of training and maturing a generation of naval officers, developing viable naval tactics and doctrine, and leapfrogging generations of technology—all while trying to surpass a United States that has already done all of these things. Pursuing a conventional naval strategy will not provide a strategic solution for China within a reasonable timeframe. The United States behaves in unexpected ways, from the Chinese point of view, and the Chinese will need a solution within five years—or certainly within a decade.

They cannot launch a competitive, traditional navy in that period of time. However, the U.S. Navy has a general dependency on—and, therefore, a vulnerability related to—space-based systems. Within the U.S. military, this is not unique to the Navy, but given that the Navy operates at vast distances and has sea lane-control missions—as well as the mission of launching aircraft and missiles against land-based targets—it has a particular dependency on space. The service relies on space-based systems for intelligence-gathering, communications, navigation and tactical reconnaissance. This is true not only for naval platforms, but also for everything from cruise missile guidance to general situational awareness.

Take out the space-based systems and the efficiency of the Navy plummets dramatically. Imagine an American carrier strike group moving into interdiction position in the Taiwan Strait without satellite reconnaissance, targeting information for anti-ship missiles, satellite communications for coordination and so on. Certainly, ship-board systems could substitute, but not without creating substantial vulnerabilities—particularly if Chinese engineers could develop effective jamming systems against them.

If the Chinese were able to combine kinetic ASAT systems for low-Earth orbit, high-energy systems for communications and other systems in geostationary orbit, and tools for effectively denying the electromagnetic spectrum to the United States, they would have moved a long way toward challenging U.S. dominance of space and limiting the Navy's ability to deny sea lanes to Chinese ships. From the Chinese point of view, the denial of space to the United States would undermine American denial of the seas to China.

Conjecture and Core Interests
There has been some discussion—fueled by Chinese leaks—that the real purpose of the Chinese ASAT launch was to prompt the Americans to think about an anti-ASAT treaty. This is not a persuasive argument, because such a treaty would freeze in place the current status quo, and that status quo is not in the Chinese national interest.

For one thing, a treaty banning ASAT systems would leave the Chinese without an effective means of limiting American naval power. It would mean that China would have to spend a fortune on a traditional navy and wait at least a generation to have it in place. It would mean ceding the oceans to the United States for a very long time, if not permanently. Second, the United States and Russia already have ASAT systems, and the Chinese undoubtedly assume that the Americans have moved aggressively, if secretly, to improve those systems. Treaty or no, the United States and Russia already have the technology for taking out Chinese satellites. China is not going to assume that either will actually dismantle systems—or forget how to build them fast—merely because of a treaty. The only losers in the event of an anti-ASAT treaty would be the countries that do not have them, particularly China.

The idea that what China really wants is an anti-ASAT treaty is certainly one the Chinese should cultivate. This would buy them time while Americans argue over Chinese intentions, it would make the Chinese look benign and, with some luck, it could undermine U.S. political will in the area of the military utilization of space. Cultivating perceptions that an anti-ASAT treaty is the goal is the perfect diplomatic counterpart to Chinese technological development. But the notion itself does not stand up to scrutiny.

The issue for the United States is not so much denying space to China as the survivability of its own systems. The United States likely has the ability to neutralize space-based systems of other countries. The strategic issue, however, is whether it has sufficient robustness and redundancy to survive an attack in space. In other words, do U.S. systems have the ability to maneuver to evade attacks, to shield themselves against lasers, to continue their missions while under attack? Moreover, since satellites will be damaged and lost, does the United States have sufficient reserve satellites to replace those destroyed and launchers to put them in place quickly?

For Washington, the idea of an ASAT treaty is not the issue; the United States would love anything that blocks space capabilities for other nations. Rather, it is about building its own space strategy around the recognition that China—and others—are working toward denying space to the United States.

All of this is, of course, fiendishly expensive, but still a lot cheaper than building new naval fleets. But the real problem is not just money, but current military dogma. The U.S. military is now enthralled by the doctrine of asymmetric warfare, in which nonstate actors are more important than states. Forever faithful to the assumption that all wars in the future will look like the one currently being fought, the strategic urgency and intellectual bandwidth needed to prepare for space warfare does not currently exist within the U.S. military. Indeed, an independent U.S. Space Command no longer exists—having been merged into Strategic Command, which itself is seen as an anachronism.

For the United States, one of the greatest prices of the Iraq war is not simply the ongoing conflict, but also the fact that it makes it impossible for the U.S. military to allocate resources for emerging threats. That always happens in war, but it is particularly troubling in this case because of the intractable nature of the Iraq conflict and the palpable challenge being posed by China in space. This is not a challenge that many—certainly not those at the highest levels of military leadership—have time to think about while concerned about the future of a few city blocks in Baghdad; but U.S. leaders might, in 10 years, look back on 2007 and wonder what their predecessors were thinking about.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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