Cover: Chinese and Russian Perceptions of and Responses to U.S. Military Activities in the Space Domain

Chinese and Russian Perceptions of and Responses to U.S. Military Activities in the Space Domain

Published Oct 11, 2022

by Alexis A. Blanc, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Khrystyna Holynska, M. Scott Bond, Stephen J. Flanagan


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Research Questions

  1. How have Chinese and Russian perceptions about U.S. military activities in space evolved over time?
  2. What responses are China and Russia taking to address or counter U.S. actions?

U.S. military activities and policy with respect to the space domain have evolved significantly since the 1980s, and recent developments include the reestablishment of U.S. Space Command and the establishment of the U.S. Space Force in 2019. Yet, despite this activity and concerns regarding the increasingly congested and contested nature of space, there has been little open-source analysis of Chinese and Russian perceptions of these developments.

To fill this gap, RAND researchers systematically reviewed a variety of Chinese and Russian primary sources, such as government publications, military journals, academic reports, and domestic media, to gain insights into internal Chinese and Russian perceptions of developments in U.S. military activities related to space and counterspace doctrine, exercises, and organization.

To focus their efforts, the researchers developed a representative sample of ten U.S. "events" in the space domain, such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (1983), the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (2002), Operation Burnt Frost (2008), and the space policies of recent U.S. presidents. They searched each primary source for discussion of these events, which they used to assess how Chinese and Russian reactions to U.S. military activities related to space have evolved over time.

Key Findings

The primary sources reflect a sustained perception by China and Russia that U.S. military activities related to space are threatening and demonstrate hostile intent

  • This perception partly encompasses the space-based threat to their respective nuclear deterrents and concerns related to U.S. counterspace capabilities and the ability of U.S. satellites to covertly fly close to space objects to inspect them and collect information.
  • The condition of bilateral relations at a particular moment appears to shape each government's view of U.S. space activities. Yet, both countries tend toward confirmation bias, whereby more plausibly "aggressive" U.S. activities tend to reinforce the perception that the U.S. military has a hostile intent in the space domain, whereas more plausibly cooperative U.S. initiatives are discounted as disingenuous.
  • China and Russia generally attempt to strike a rhetorical balance of characterizing U.S. actions as threatening while characterizing their own, similar actions as nonthreatening.

Washington, Beijing, and Moscow appear to be caught in an action-reaction cycle that perpetuates justifications for continued military actions in space based on previous adversary activities

  • Both Chinese and Russian officials have contended that the United States has led the way to militarizing space, particularly since 2001, leaving them no choice but to take countervailing measures.
  • Both countries point to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty as a key inflection point in U.S. efforts to weaponize space, and this is one of the few instances in which a causal relationship can be drawn between a U.S. action and a Russian counteraction.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. government and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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