Sam BlackChina’s Space Power in 2010

So the 2010 iteration of the Department of Defense’s China Military Power report is out. The 2009 version came out on March 24, 2009, about two months after Inauguration Day, so this is probably the first one for which the Obama administration’s political appointees ran the show from start to finish. And obviously, intelligence assessments do change from time to time, as ACW readers know well. So how does China’s space power this year compare to 2009?

First, there’s a title change that hasn’t got a ton of attention, at least in the things I’ve read. The new title is “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” The old one was “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China.” According to the legislative language cited in the beginning matter of both reports, the 2010 defense authorization bill mandated the title change and asked for an additional section on “United States-China engagement and cooperation on security matters during the period covered by the report, including through United States-China military-to-military contacts, and the United States strategy for such engagement and cooperation in the future.” The net result of this authorization tweak seems to have been that the 2009 report’s “Special Topic” section on China’s global military engagement was dropped, and a description of bilateral mil-to-mil contacts was added. If Congress’s intent in making these changes was to soften the report to placate the Chinese and smooth the way for improved military ties, mission accomplished.

Both reports share a common format, and there are three sections which discuss China’s space capabilities: “Military Strategy and Doctrine,” “Strategic Capabilities,” and “Development of China’s Asymmetric Capabilities.” I created a side-by-side chart with full text of these sections, if you’re interested.

The part on strategy and doctrine is almost identical from 2009 to 2010. Identical as in many sentences are only slightly altered, and that both reports cite the exact same quote from the same China Military Science journal article. The main substantive difference is that the 2010 version cuts the final two paragraphs of the strategy and doctrine section, which made two main points:

PRC military writings also discuss the importance of space warfare for its supposed psychological impact on the will of the adversary to fight


The January 2007 test of a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon demonstrates that the PLA’s interest in counterspace systems is more than theoretical. In addition to the “kinetic kill” capability demonstrated by the ASAT test, the PLA is developing the ability to jam, blind, or otherwise disable satellites and their terrestrial support infrastructure.

The second of these is covered in the other sections of the report, but the first seems germane to this section and is, so far as I’m aware, still accurate. Of course, DOD could have just decided that it wasn’t worth citing some PLA Colonel’s dissertation multiple years in a row.

The section on asymmetric capabilities is basically just an update on what’s happened in the last year, but the 2010 report deletes a bullet point stating that “China’s leaders remain silent about the military applications of China’s space programs and counterspace activities.” I seem to have missed any statements by China’s leaders on these topics.

The third section on space has to do with strategic capabilities. Here there are some more interesting changes. In an otherwise nearly-identical opening paragraph, the 2010 version drops the following claim about China’s space program: “China views the development of space and counterspace capabilities as bolstering national prestige and, like nuclear weapons, demonstrating the attributes of a great power.” I can understand this change. Over time, China’s space program seems likely to provide tangible hard power benefits in addition to its prestige-boosting effects. So to attribute the investments in space technology solely to prestige concerns is to miss part of the story.

The 2010 version also deletes an entire section on small satellites and greatly reduced the section on China’s manned space and lunar programs. I’m honestly not sure how much military/strategic value the manned and lunar programs have. And since the most observable parts of China’s small satellite program appear to be modest and dual-use, assessments of their strategic import often hinge on how one perceives China’s intentions.

The main new additions in this part of the 2010 report are comments noting that China buys commercial imagery from a number of different suppliers and “pursuing several avenues to reduce its dependence on any single foreign-owned satellite navigation system.” I can only hope that foreign observers of U.S. space power can note similar efforts to diversify reliance across various U.S. government, international, and commercial providers. There’s also a sentence in the 2010 report stating that “China continues to develop and refine” the ASAT system that was tested in 2007. I wonder if this was prompted by China’s hit-to-kill missile defense testing

Overall, the space parts of the Chinese Military Power report are more alike than they are different – perhaps two thirds or more of the 2010 version is simply cut and pasted from the 2009 version. But when there are changes, they seem to downplay Chinese space activities in several areas, including small satellite research and a general lack of transparency, that have been controversial. I can think of a number of (not mutually exclusive) reasons for doing this:

  1. It’s an attempt to reduce the negative PR impact the report has in China
  2. It’s the result of a decision to pursue information about these programs more in private than in public
  3. It’s driven by a need to protect sources and methods
  4. US-China bilaterals have been more fruitful on space issues than has been made public
  5. It’s representative of a desire to inject a measure of sanity into the public debate over Chinese space activities
  6. It’s driven by an acknowledgment that previous reports have overstated China’s military space capabilities.

It’s hard to say which of these candidates is most likely. Number one seems like a fail. But the other five are all competitive – any thoughts?


  1. wau (History)

    Hmm… I am surprised. Given the recent announcement that China is now the #2 economic power in the world ahead of Japan but behind the U.S., I would have thought that China will spend more on space programs and not less.

  2. Dwayne Day (History)

    I am actually working on a short article about this for The Space Review and you beat me to a number of the points I was going to make. I tend to lean towards #2 and #3. But I’d add that DoD is not willfully producing this report–they are being forced to do so. There are probably some interesting discussions about what to include and not include that go beyond the normal editorial process.

    I did note that on page 2 of the report there is an unambiguous statement: “China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile… has a range in excess of 1,500 km, is armed with a maneuverable warhead, and when integrated with appropriate command and control systems, is intended to provide the PLA the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific.”

    The 2009 report did mention that China was doing this, but not right up front and not so bluntly.

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