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The Drive for Space Weaponization
March 2008

The Stanley Foundation’s work focuses primarily on peace and security issues and advocating principled multilateralism. The foundation’s concept of principled multilateralism means working respectfully across differences to create fair, just, and lasting solutions. This is the sixth in a series of articles written by foundation staff that examines the cases where principled multilateralism has been or can be applied. In this article director of Policy Analysis and Dialogue Michael Kraig discusses why multilateralism is essential to avoiding a new Cold War in space weaponization. Look for future articles in upcoming editions of think., our monthly e-newsletter.

When a US Navy vessel fired a missile and hit a defunct spy satellite hurtling through space on the first try last month, it demonstrated a new space race was already under way.

The challenge of this space race, however, will be avoiding the onset of a second great power Cold War and focusing instead on multilateral ways to bring the mutual benefits of globalization to all.

There are really three things pushing the United States to spend money on the future weaponization of space: the possibility of conflict over Taiwan that could involve US military interventions against China, which drives both the Chinese and US militaries to plan for that contingency, however remote; the inertia of the US Cold War military machine; and a strong US belief that international peace and stability—a "liberal international order"—will continue most reliably under continued US dominance.

It is important here to distinguish general fear of Chinese military, economic, and cultural expansion in greater Asia from the very specific danger of an escalation over a potential Taiwanese declaration of independence from Mainland China. To deal with the former—which has been happening for some time—the United States already has a viable strategy:

  • Strong economic engagement and interdependence of the national economies of the United States, Taiwan, and China.
  • Bilateral US-Asia defense pacts, especially involving navies, between the United States and the southeast Asian countries, as well as even more committed military relationships with South Korea and Japan.
  • Mutual confidence-building measures between the United States and China on the defense front, such as visits between military personnel and tours of military installations.
Through this complex, nuanced mix of cooperative and competitive interactions, which started with President Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972, America is successfully deterring the possibility of an unchecked, aggressive rise of China that would threaten, or cause the perception of threat to, its neighbors. Indeed, most security experts now believe that an all-out Asian war is an extremely low-probability event.

Instead, the main potentially unmanageable danger is a buildup of new frictions between Taiwan and China. The rise of nationalist aspirations in one or both countries could lead to a break in the informal "agreement to disagree" over Taiwan's ultimate status. This sensitive, fragile, but thus far durable, status quo has been maintained since the time of President Jimmy Carter through US diplomacy and deterrence, and Taiwanese and Chinese domestic political restraint.

But Chinese bids to take over Taiwan—perhaps caused by Taiwanese attempts at independence from the mainland—could easily cause an American military intervention. US intervention could conceivably start with naval actions and quickly escalate to US and Chinese air and space force exercises, including bombing runs in an effort to shoot down America's "eyes and ears" in outer space. It is just this latter scenario that has led the US Air Force to conduct virtual space combat war-game scenarios, citing an unnamed "rising Asian power" as the main potential enemy.

The other driver of potential space weaponization is a combination of the US strategic approach to the world as the sole superpower, alongside the powerful domestic bureaucratic and corporate interests of the US military-industrial complex. On the question of the US role in the world, many leaders believe that international peace and stability, including continued expansion of the global economy through free market globalization, can only continue reliably through US dominance of the global commons of sea, land, air, and space. And in physical terms, this US-ensured global order would be underwritten by the ongoing high-tech "Revolution in Military Affairs," which theoretically gives the United States the ability to monitor, sense, and react to potential hostile events and deliver precision munitions to any location on the globe or in outer space. Further, this latter military planning goal of "Full Spectrum Dominance" has a bureaucratic and financial side as well. In a post-Cold War world, there’s a powerful set of uniformed military and private corporate interests pushing the technological envelope on some of the most expensive offensive and defensive capabilities in world history.

These international and domestic trends—political, cultural, economic, and technological—constitute the increasingly "cold" competition between the United States and China in regard to military capabilities operating to, from, and in outer space. Potential weaponization of outer space, and eventual escalation of military hostilities involving space forces, is being driven by a complex blend of issues. The main hope of those advocating cooperation rather than conflict is that diplomats, military leaders, and politicians on all sides can modulate the negative aspects of their competition and focus instead on the common, mutually beneficial aspects of globalization: greater wealth, prosperity, and standards of living now being created through economic and social interactions. In the end, astute and timely political leadership in Asia and the United States will be key to avoiding the onset of a second great power Cold War in the 21st century.
—Michael Kraig


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