Cover: China's Growing Risk Tolerance in Space

China's Growing Risk Tolerance in Space

People's Liberation Army Perspectives and Escalation Dynamics

Published Jun 24, 2024

by Howard Wang, Gregory Graff, Alexis Dale-Huang


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Chinese leaders see themselves in competition with the United States to build military power in space. The ongoing development of U.S. and Chinese capabilities could lead to unstable competition in space, raising the risk of rapid, and perhaps unintended, military escalation. This report surveys open-source literature across the Chinese defense enterprise to present a composite image of People's Liberation Army (PLA) perspectives and key factors for U.S.-China crisis stability in space. It draws on authoritative materials, including leader speeches reported in official media, defense white papers, and official professional military education, which collectively reflect political leader guidance and PLA strategy and doctrine.

The findings suggest that the PLA's thinking on escalation dynamics in space has become significantly more risk-tolerant than that found in PLA documents published just a decade prior. This shift emphasizes Xi Jinping's guidance to be more proactive in shaping the international environment, which includes accepting higher but carefully calibrated levels of risk even though such proactive measures might result in unintended escalation with the United States. This higher escalation tolerance is complicated by Chinese leaders' inflated threat perceptions of the United States and resultant policy approach that resists cooperating with the United States to arrest unintended crisis escalation. 

Key Findings

  • Chinese leaders perceive a global trend in which China is in the process of replacing the United States as the world's dominant power.
  • Authoritative PLA literature makes clear that space deterrence, like all PLA deterrence, contains both deterrent and compellent elements, ultimately meant to coerce an enemy into submission to Beijing's political objectives.
  • The PLA's approach to deterrence and escalation in space prioritizes securing political objectives over avoiding conflict. Beijing could initiate conflict activities if it judged the political risk of inaction to be greater than the military risk.
  • Chinese leaders regard the United States with an inflated perception of threat and have adopted a policy approach that resists cooperating with the United States to arrest unintended crisis escalation.
  • Contemporary PLA research espouses significantly more risk-tolerant views than authoritative PLA professional military education published in 2013, which was likely generated prior to the influence of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping.
  • Because Chinese leaders view the United States as prosecuting hegemony-maintaining strategies against China, Chinese leaders tend to interpret U.S.-led efforts to establish crisis communication mechanisms or broader space norms as tools to control China's behavior.


  • Without the direct means for arresting unintended crisis escalation in space, U.S. officials responsible for managing U.S.-China crises in space will likely need to adapt to compressed decision cycles with little communication to achieve a version of stability that Chinese leaders will tolerate. Moreover, U.S. officials will likely need to do so without expectations of cooperation with the PLA.
  • U.S. officials should avoid investing costly efforts or making significant policy concessions to establish crisis communications mechanisms with the PLA. Given the CCP history of aversion to crisis communications with the United States, PLA overtures to discuss such mechanisms might not be made in good faith.
  • The PLA's push to proactively shape its strategic environment indicate that the U.S. Space Force (USSF) will face a bellicose PLA eager to assert itself in space during peacetime, though the PLA remains unlikely to escalate in a way that risks its political imperatives. USSF should anticipate that PLA provocations in peacetime likely comprise a new normal in day-to-day space operations that involve China.
  • The PLA's proactive steps and higher risk tolerance remain subordinate to political decisionmaking. In interpreting PLA messaging, USSF operators should anticipate that the PLA is not likely to take proactive, escalatory steps in a crisis if those steps undermine its ability to prosecute such politically imperative missions as a war over Taiwan.

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This research was prepared for the Department of the Air Force and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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