Report: China Has Second-Largest Fleet of Satellites

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August 24, 2020

China now operates the second-largest fleet of satellites in orbit, The Wire China reported Sunday.

A database maintained by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows China owns 363 of the 2,667 recorded satellites in orbit, a number only surpassed by the United States. Russia sports 169 satellites of its own with the world’s third-largest satellite fleet.

The preponderance of Chinese satellites are owned by the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese government, while private satellites are often accessible to Chinese authorities through civil-military fusion and state-owned enterprises. Nearly all Chinese satellites, therefore, potentially pose a national security threat to the United States.

In recent months, Beijing and Moscow have increased cooperation in space and Arctic operations while building up arsenals of missiles and satellite weaponry that threaten American space operations.

Even further, China has upgraded its space capacities with an eye toward Mars, while U.S. efforts to deescalate tensions with the Kremlin in space have so far brought little success.

China’s propensity to flex its muscles directly creates risk for emerging American technologies, says Dean Cheng, Heritage Foundation senior fellow and member of the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group.

"China has demonstrated that it will strive to circumvent or twist other nations’ laws in order to access key technologies, including space technologies," Cheng said. "The case of Global IP, an American company which had arranged to purchase a Boeing satellite, is a prime example."

Though the current White House has gone to significant lengths to counter growing competition in space, experts such as Cheng still believe much more can be done.

"Far from rewarding such bad behavior as failing to control its reentering space vehicles and failing to inform potential victims, it is essential to make clear that such failures have consequences," Cheng said.

"Allowing the Chinese to blithely claim that they have a reentering spacecraft under control, only to admit years later that they do not, is unlikely to promote responsible behavior or adherence to norms," Cheng added. "Similarly, Chinese efforts to subvert arms export regulations and intellectual property laws need to be rebutted firmly, rather than efforts to expand business ‘cooperation.’"