China will use its space station to advance its military technology and strengthen its influence in foreign countries, experts and lawmakers warn the Washington Free Beacon.
Three Chinese astronauts reached the Tiangong space station on June 17. The project ushers in an expansion of China's capabilities in space and a boost to its international prestige. The station is home to numerous "dual use" technologies that have military applications that could threaten the United States. As China's station eclipses the International Space Station in technological capabilities, developing countries may also be more enticed to collaborate with China's space program.
China has exploited numerous high-tech ventures—included in its space program—to increase surveillance, data sharing, and corporate espionage. Sarah Mineiro, a board member at the Vandenberg Coalition and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told the Washington Free Beacon such technologies are cause for concern, and China’s growing space capabilities challenge American power in the ultimate high ground.
"The Chinese do not have a firewall between national security, defense, intelligence in space and civil space," Mineiro said. "It’s a widely recognized fact that space is increasingly vulnerable. The advantages we derive from space—specifically the national security advantages we derive from space—have long been threatened."
In 2018, the chief of the Chinese lunar exploration program compared the moon and Mars to contested islands in the South China Sea, which the Chinese military has long laid claim to. Experts warned the space station is a step in the larger Chinese plan to establish a foothold in Earth's orbit, and eventually on the moon. Rep. Mike Waltz (R., Fla.), a cofounder of the House Space Force Caucus, warned that impending budget constraints under the Biden administration and the growing strength of the Chinese space program could put America out of the game in coming years.
"The Chinese space program is on the rise, it’s young, new, vibrant and ascendant. Our program is stagnant and in some cases declining," Waltz said. "I hope this administration will engage on the front end with these countries to help them understand what a devil’s bargain it will be to cooperate with the Chinese on their space station."
The Biden administration did not return a request for comment.
Chinese officials have signaled they will use the space station to develop relationships with other nations. The strategy is similar to one that Beijing deployed during the coronavirus pandemic, as it provided its inferior vaccine to African, Latin American, and other Asian countries. China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy has pushed the United States to share doses of vaccines abroad.
"We should expect that as the Chinese build out their space station that we’re going to see them use it as a diplomatic tool," said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
China invited United Nations member states in 2018 to use the space station for research. U.S. officials are also concerned that China is working closely with the Russian space program. In March, Russia and China agreed to begin working toward the construction of a joint moon base.
Brandon Weichert, a space security analyst and author of the 2020 book Winning Space, said China and Russia could surpass the United States in space during the coming decades, a threat that he said calls for strong leadership in the U.S. space industry.
"It could allow them to dominate the Earth-moon system along with the Chinese," Weichert said of Russia. "We’re in a new space race, it’s going to be a national effort, and we need to plan and resource these longer-term missions."
The Trump administration established the Space Force in 2019 to better protect American satellites from Russian and Chinese weaponry in space. Biden officials have acknowledged the possibility of Chinese aggression in orbit. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has deemed China a "pacing threat," and NASA administrator Bill Nelson said Wednesday he hopes to make the Wolf Amendment—a measure in place forbidding space cooperation with China—permanent due to Chinese space threats.
The administration’s focus, however, might not be sufficient. Beijing is mimicking many of the successful tactics of the U.S. space industry, including supporting its own cadre of private companies to advance the nation's mission in space. With China's technological developments advancing at breakneck speed, it is unclear that the United States can long retain its edge on the final frontier.
"In a lot of the areas of space it is not at all clear that they are far behind or even that much behind," Cheng said. "We should be very careful about assuming they’re behind us."