China watchDeterring China in Space

Published 31 July 2021

How can classical deterrence theory be adapted for the space domain? What is involved in shifting from deterrence of a specific capability to deterrence of a variety of activities in a specific domain? What should be considered when building a deterrence strategy tailored for China in space?

The space-based capabilities of the United States have become integral to economic prosperity, to the defense of both the United States and its allies across all domains, and to facilitating cross-domain joint military operations. The U.S. government thus views the protection of these capabilities and the deterrence of any activity that could degrade them as vital to national security.

A new report from the RAND Corporation notes that, concurrently, China regards space capabilities as both a key enabler in terrestrial conflict and a means of bolstering its overall strength, and views United States activity in space as an obstacle to these goals. Accordingly, China may be motivated to exploit any evident U.S. vulnerabilities in the space domain to further its own objectives. Deterring China in space is therefore a priority for the United States Department of Defense and its allies and partners.

The authors of this report consider deterrence concepts and examine how a deterrence strategy could be tailored to recognize the unique characteristics of the space domain and the particular objectives of China in space. To accomplish this, they review literature on classical deterrence theory and identify some key features that are particularly relevant to deterrence in the space domain. They then build a foundation for tailoring deterrence for China in space by examining Beijing’s goals and approach to space deterrence as stated in openly available Chinese primary-source materials and identifying the implications of these findings for the United States and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Key Findings

·  A successful approach to deterrence in space requires credibility and legitimacy of cross-domain responses to aggression; alliances can help establish this credibility and legitimacy.

·  Establishing behavioral norms is important for a deterrence strategy in space, and an approach for building these norms needs to be tailored to a specific actor.

·  Because of China’s ambitions in space, deterring them requires the imposition of significant costs for aggressive action in space. Imposing political costs on China for aggressive action can be bolstered through strategic coordination between the United States and its allies.

·  China’s view of space as a critical U.S. vulnerability makes U.S. space capabilities attractive targets for attack. Highlighting China’s own reliance on space-based capabilities should be a part of a tailored deterrence strategy.


·  U.S. public statements should avoid space-to-space calculations and encompass deterring China’s plans to impact the entirety of the U.S. effort through activities in space.

·  To develop an effective deterrence strategy, the United States should decrease the perceived utility of interfering with space-based capabilities, mitigate the perception that limited use of space force will act as a deterrent, and address the view of U.S. vulnerability in space.

·  The United States should reinforce its efforts by involving key allies and partners in deterrence.