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A Tale of Three Speeches: How Xi Jinping’s 40th Anniversary Speech Marks A Departure

This article originally featured on China Leadership Monitor and is republished with permission. It originally published under the title, “A Tale of Three Speeches: How Xi’s Speech Marking the 40th Anniversary of Reform and Opening Differs from those of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.” Read it in its original form here.

By Minxin Pei

Xi Jinping’s speech marking the 40th anniversary of reform and opening on December 18, 2018 recapitulates the substantial ideological and policy changes he has initiated since coming to power in late 2012.  A comparison of this speech with speeches by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao on the 20th and 30th anniversary of reform and opening respectively reveals significant differences in terms of ideological rhetoric and substantive policy issues.  Whereas the speeches by Jiang and Hu adhere to the basic ideological and policy guidelines established by Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping’s speech underscores his personal authority and political vision.  Most significantly, Xi’s speech emphasizes the supremacy of Communist Party centralized and unified strongman rule and China’s bold and expansive role in international affairs.  The uncompromising tone of his speech suggests that it is unlikely that Xi will make substantial changes to his domestic and foreign policies despite the strong headwinds both domestically and internationally.

Parsing speeches by top Chinese leaders for clues about their ideological leanings and policy preferences recalls the now much-derided Kremlinology.  The torrent of information pouring out of China in the post-Mao reform era casts doubts about the utility of textual analysis.  Yet, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under General Secretary Xi Jinping increases the intensity of its control over the flow of information, scrutiny of the language in pronouncements by the top leaders is likely to provide useful insights into their ideological mindsets and policy priorities 

The speech delivered by General Secretary Xi Jinping on December 18, 2018, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Congress, is a case in point.1  During the six years since becoming party leader, Xi has instituted radical policy changes affecting the distribution of power, security for ruling elites, ideology, state-society relations, and foreign policy.  An implicit rule of Chinese politics is that such changes must be elevated to a new political narrative and accorded fresh ideological legitimacy in a carefully crafted political speech delivered on a key occasion, such as a national CCP congress or an anniversary of a major historic event. The political symbolism and substance of Xi’s speech marking the 40th anniversary of reform and opening cannot be overstated.  Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi’s two immediate predecessors, also delivered highly publicized speeches celebrating, respectively, the 20th and 30th anniversary of the historic Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Congress.

On the surface, these anniversary speeches may not appear to be fertile ground for mining evidence of the differences between the ideas and policies of successive top leaders during the post-Deng era.  However, despite their dry language, they nevertheless yield useful clues about the personal, ideological, and policy differences among  different generations of top leaders because such high-profile anniversary speeches are drafted by an assigned writing team and typically undergo several revisions to ensure that the speeches both fully and accurately reflect the thinking of the top leadership.  The final draft is reviewed, edited, and approved by the top leader himself.

In the following pages, we will dissect the rhetorical and substantive differences between Xi’s speech on December 18th and the speeches by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao on similar occasions in 1998 and 2008.2  We first examine the subtle differences in their references to key terms and in their phraseology to both describe past policies and leaders and to spell out the party’s bottom-line positions on reform.  We then focus on the noteworthy differences in the policy statements contained in these speeches.  Specifically, such statements are included in the section devoted to “lessons learned” from the previous decades.  In reality, these lessons, typically numbering about ten points, not only summarize the leader’s own interpretation of the achievements of the previous decades but also describe the guiding principles for future domestic and foreign policies.  We conclude with an analysis of the implications of the observed differences between Xi’s speech and those of his two predecessors.

Rhetorical Differences

High-profile speeches by top leaders follow implicit rhetorical rules.  In particular, they are supposed to make obligatory references to the official ideology and the past leaders and their achievements.   The CCP’s fundamental political principles and policies, such as those expressed in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping (the so-called four “cardinal principles”), must also be reiterated.3 On the whole, the rhetoric in the three speeches under examination may not seem significantly different in these respects.  Nevertheless, we can still detect subtle and non-trivial rhetorical differences that indicate how Xi Jinping regards his own status in the pantheon of CCP leaders.

Despite the obligatory nature of such references, the frequency of invoking the orthodox Communist ideology as well as previous Chinese leaders and their ideological doctrines can serve as a useful proxy for the degree of ideological legitimacy the present leader attaches to the orthodox ideology and to his predecessors.  A speaker who believes that his policies are more faithful to the orthodox ideology and to the doctrines of his predecessors will more frequently refer to the said ideology, doctrine, and leader.  When there are fewer such references, the speaker is generally less ideologically beholden to former doctrines and leaders.  It is also reasonable to assume that the leader who makes the least number of references to his predecessors is implicitly hoping to highlight his own status and contributions.

Based on this assumption, an examination of the number of references to Marxism-Leninism, Mao, and Deng Xiaoping in the three speeches under examination would reveal substantial differences in how Jiang, Hu, and Xi perceived their ideological faithfulness.  Of the three speeches, each leader made about the same number of references to Mao (four for Jiang, and five each for Hu and Xi).  This may suggest that all three leaders were aware of the potential political peril of excessive references and homage to Mao’s ideas and legacy.  Nevertheless, a close reading of the assessment of Mao in the three speeches reveals subtle and important differences between Xi and his two predecessors.

In the speeches by Jiang and Hu, the assessments of Mao’s contributions are almost identical—both brief and even perfunctory.  There is no hint of rethinking the Maoist legacy. By comparison, Xi’s speech represents perhaps the most important—and positive -—revision of Mao’s legacy. Xi not only devotes more space (one long paragraph) to describe Mao’s achievements but also adds key terms to put a positive spin on the disastrous Maoist period.  The most notable section reads, “In the process of exploration, despite serious detours, the party gained unique and original theoretical results and monumental achievements, providing precious experience, theoretical preparations, and material foundations for creating Chinese-style socialism in the near historic era.” (在探索过程中,虽然经历了严重曲折,但党在社会主义革命和建设中取得的独创性理论成果和巨大成就,为在新的历史时期开创中国特色社会主义提供了宝贵经验、理论准备、物质基础).4 Critically, Xi’s speech portrays the Maoist period positively as a “process of exploration” — a far cry from the phrase “the decade of calamities” (十年浩劫) that the party usually uses to describe the Cultural Revolution.  Additionally, by linking the “theoretical” and “material” achievements of the Maoist period to the “new historic era,” Xi’s speech endorses the view that the Maoist period and the post-Maoist period are inseparable and cannot be used to “negate one another,” a point that Xi first advanced in January 2013.5 

In terms of references to Marxism-Leninism, Hu’s speech contains the most references to Marxism-Leninism (24), whereas Jiang and Xi invoke Marxism-Leninism ten times and eight times, respectively.  As for Deng, Jiang makes 18 references to him whereas Hu and Xi refer to him eight and six times respectively.  These notable differences in invocating the sources of ideological legitimacy and inspiration may be interpreted as Jiang’s desire to be seen as Deng’s faithful heir whereas Hu may have been seeking to present himself as a more faithful adherent to orthodox Marxism-Leninism.  In the case of Xi, he appears to be far more confident in presenting himself as a leader less dependent on the traditional sources of ideological legitimacy.

Xi’s efforts to set himself apart from his two immediate predecessors are also apparent in other parts of his speech.  For example, norms of modesty and political constraints probably prevented Jiang and Hu from lauding the achievements of their first terms, as there exist no such references.  But Xi’s speech contains a long section listing the accomplishments of his first term.  A rhetorical deference to the previous leaders is notably different as well.  Both Jiang and Hu specifically salute the achievements of their immediate predecessors.6 In contrast, Xi does not salute the achievements under Hu’s leadership.  In referring to previous leaders, both Jiang and Hu use two key phrases, “collective leadership” (集体领导) and “as its core” (核心) to describe their predecessors.  Xi replaces “as its core” with “as its main representative” (为主要代表) when referring to Mao, Deng, Jiang, and Hu.  The key phrase “collective leadership” has completely disappeared from Xi’s speech.

These rhetorical changes were evidently designed to signal Xi’s power and status.  Because the official Chinese media never drops the phrase “as its core” when describing Xi’s position in the party, any removal of this phrase from descriptions of his predecessors may suggest that Xi occupies a truly unique position.  The elimination of the phrase “collective leadership” from his speech also underscores today’s political reality of strongman rule at the apex of party leadership today.

Substantive Differences

Xi’s speech also differs from those by Jiang and Hu on key ideological and policy issues. 

1. Interpreting the past and setting the direction for the future

In the second half of the anniversary speech, each leader lists the most important policies pursued by the party and credit these policies with bringing about the achievements of the prior decades.  A quick examination shows how Xi differs from his predecessors in this regard.  Jiang and Hu credit the same principle—Marxism-Leninism—as the most important factor contributing to the party’s accomplishments.  In contrast, Xi singles out the supremacy of the party and “centralized unified leadership of the party” (党的集中统一领导) as the most important factors, relegating Marxism-Leninism to third place.7 Whereas Jiang and Hu focus on the application of Marxism-Leninism to China’s reality, in a full paragraph Xi amplifies the supremacy of the party.  In this paragraph, which sets the direction “for the road ahead” (前进道路上), Xi emphasizes “we must strengthen the “four consciousness” and “four self-confidence” and “resolutely safeguard the authority and centralized leadership” firm adherence to the party center’s authority and centralized unified leadership”—code words demanding loyalty to his leadership (two of the four types of “consciousness” are “consciousness of the rules and consciousness of compliance.8 Since “firm adherence to the authority of the party center and to centralized unified leadership” clearly implies loyalty to Xi, the elevation of centralized personal leadership to the top political principles is a significant departure from the collective leadership under Jiang and Hu.  Notably, Xi appears to justify centralized personal leadership by invoking the dangers lurking in the future.  In the same paragraph, he warns that there “will certainly be various risks and challenges, even an encounter with perilous storms” (惊涛骇浪)—a phrase that has led many analysts to wonder about his meaning.9 

We can also gain a better understanding of Xi’s emphasis on the supremacy of the party by comparing how his speech treats the sensitive topic of political reform limits. In the speeches by Jiang and Hu marking the anniversary of reform and opening, the two Chinese leaders pay only lip service to reform of the political system (政治体制改革), a task initially introduced by Deng in the early 1980s.  Jiang devotes a full paragraph to political reform and declares that the party will “actively, gradually, and appropriately promote” such a reform.  One key lesson or successful policy listed in Hu’s speech is the “combination of promotion of economic foundations and reform of the super-structure and the continuous promotion of reform of the political system.”

Remarkably, in Xi’s speech, the key phrase, “political system reform,” appears only once—in the section summarizing the achievements of the past four decades.  In the most important section listing the key policies contributing to the party’s success and the guiding principles for the future, not only does the phrase “political system reform” completely disappear but there is also no equivalent section dealing with any future reform of key political institutions.

Equally remarkable is Xi’s emphatic statement on the boundaries of reform.  To be sure, both Jiang and Hu set such boundaries in their speeches.  Comparatively, however, Jiang uses the least harsh language to spell out what kinds of reforms the party will tolerate.  He insists that the party will not “shaken, weaken, or discard” (动摇,削弱和丢掉) these reforms at any time; we must adhere to “socialist democratic politics with Chinese characteristics,” and not copy “the mode of the West’s political system should not be copied” (照搬西方的政治制度模式).  In Hu’s speech, the language setting the boundaries of reform seems harsher as he describes a reform path that will result in a fundamental change in the party’s status and as an” evil path toward replacing flags” (改旗易帜的邪路), even though he balances this language with a declaration that the party will not return to a path of self-imposed isolation and ossification (封闭僵化的老路).10 

In the first section of Xi’s speech summarizing the party’s past successes, he repeats Hu’s language about not returning to a path of isolation and ossification or embarking on an evil path leading to a loss of power.  More notably, in spelling out the future direction in the same section, he presents the clearest marker about what can and what cannot be reformed .  In answering his own question of “what changed, how to change” must be based on “how to reform the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” Xi declares: “We will resolutely reform what should and can be reformed, but we will resolutely not reform what should not be and cannot be reformed” (该改的、能改的我们坚决改,不该改的、不能改的坚决不改).11 

2. Definition of Chinese socialism today

Since the CCP’s 13th Congress in 1987, arguably the most liberal congress in CCP history, the party has defined Chinese socialism as the “initial stage of socialism.”  Jiang Zemin’s 1998 speech emphasizes that “China today is and will for a long time continue to be at the initial stage of socialism” (当今中国还处在并将长期处在社会主义初级阶段). Hu Jintao’s speech ten years later reiterates this line and elaborates on its meaning—as long as China remains at the initial stage of socialism, it will prioritize economic development, maintain reform and opening, and focus on domestic priorities.12 Significantly, in Xi Jinping’s speech the “initial stage of socialism” is formally replaced by “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” (新时代中国特色社会主义).13  This semantic change, easy to miss, has profound ideological and policy implications.  Ideologically, it authorizes Xi’s political vision and ideas, now collectively known as “the thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” (新时代中国特色社会主义思想), with the status of the party’s new guiding principles.  Substantively, this new formulation also justifies Xi’ vision of China as a great world power and his ambitious foreign-policy agenda.  Although his anniversary speech does not elaborate on this vision, it is fully developed in his political report to the CCP’s 19th Congress in late 2017.  The overall task of this “new era,” as Xi declares in his political report, is to “realize socialist modernization and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and . . . build a . . . great modern socialist country.”14  The most important policy implication in the difference between the “initial stage” and the “new era” is that China will have a new objective—seeking to be a global superpower.

3. Foreign policy and relations with the outside world

Probably the most notable policy difference between Xi’s speech and those of his predecessors is his foreign-policy vision.  In both tone and substance, Jiang’s speech reiterates the well-known foreign-policy guidelines established by Deng.  A subtle but significant deviation from Deng’s foreign policy can already be detected in Hu’s speech, which contains code language indicating a more defiant stance toward the United States, but by and large Hu remains defensive and cautious in nature.  In comparison, Xi’s speech unambiguously demonstrates a far more ambitious and proactive foreign policy, representing a fundamental departure from the foreign policy enunciated by Jiang some twenty years earlier.

For example, Jiang emphasizes that “The primary task of our external work is for peace and to serve socialist modernization” (我们对外工作的首要任务,就是争取和平,为社会主义现代化建设服务).  Jiang then practically repeats Deng’s foreign policy dicta— when “handling international affairs, it is essential to adhere to the principle of observing things soberly, dealing with problems calmly, doing what ought to be done, and never meeting them head-on so that we can seize opportunities to develop ourselves, accomplish the work at home” (坚持按照冷静观察、沉着应付、有所作为、决不当头的方针处理国际事务,以利抓住时机发展自己,把国内的事情办好). Hu attempts to strike a balance between adhering to the Dengist principle of subordinating foreign policy to domestic development and extending Chinese external influence as Chinese power and interests had greatly expanded since 1998.15 Hu calls to “make all-round plans for the overall domestic and international situations” (统筹好国内国际两个大局) and he adds a coded language suggesting a more assertive foreign policy aimed at challenging American unipolarity.  Hu’s foreign-policy objectives include to ”actively promote world multipolarization, promote democratization in international relations, respect variety in the world, and oppose hegemonism and power politics” (积极促进世界多极化、推进国际关系民主化,尊重世界多样性,反对霸权主义和强权政治). Compared with Jiang’s speech, which contains only the code phrase “opposition to hegemonism,” Hu’s speech presents a substantive departure from the Dengist foreign policy.  Nevertheless, the tone and content of Hu’s foreign-policy principles and objectives are defensive and do not indicate an expansive vision for future Chinese foreign policy.

The second half of Xi Jinping’s speech includes a section dealing with foreign policy.  This section indicates how much has changed in the Chinese foreign-policy vision and objectives during the two decades since Jiang’s speech.  It is difficult to detect traces of Deng’s foreign-policy principles.  In setting China’s foreign-policy course, Xi reiterates some of Hu’s coded language, but he is much more emphatic.  He declares that: “We must respect the right to choose the path of development of peoples, the maintenance of international fairness and justice, promote the democratization of international relations, against his own will on others, oppose interference in other countries’ internal affairs, against bullying” (我们要尊重各国人民自主选择发展道路的权利,维护国际公平正义,倡导国际关系民主化,反对把自己的意志强加于人,反对干涉别国内政,反对以强凌弱). The most striking part in this section is Xi’s unequivocal endorsement of a bold vision of China’s international role in general and of a long-term objective to reshape international relations.  As a “responsible great power,” China will “play the role of a responsible big country, support of the majority of developing countries, and actively participate in the global governance system reform and construction” (支持广大发展中国家发展,积极参与全球治理体系改革和建设).   He further stresses the long-term strategic importance of his signature program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  According to Xi, China … “will use the BRI as a major foundation of its new foreign policy to create, with others, a new platform of international cooperation” (我们要以共建 “一带一路” 为重点,同各方一道打造国际合作新平台).16

So What?

What do these observed and, in most cases, significant differences tell us about Xi’s ideological and policy preferences and agenda? 

For starters, this comparative exercise illustrates the nature and pace of changes in political vision and policy during the last two decades.  If there are subtle but real differences in Hu’s speech as compared to Jiang’s, the differences are largely evolutionary in nature.  But the same cannot be said of Xi’s speech, which represents a radical departure from the speeches by his predecessors in terms of both tone and substance.  For those familiar with the speaking styles of the three leaders, it is not difficult to notice that whereas the speeches by Jiang and Hu appear to be mainly the work of writing teams, Xi’s speech bears his own rhetorical identifiers and personal touches, in particular the use of direct quotes and classical idioms as well as the choice of poetic and lofty language.

What this may imply is that, taken as a whole, Xi’s speech should leave no doubt that the radical transformation of the Chinese political system from collective leadership to strongman rule and the resultant policy changes are here to stay.  We can further note that Jiang and Hu presented their respective speeches under far more favorable domestic and international circumstances, whereas Xi delivered his speech amid mounting domestic challenges and a fundamentally different external environment—the raging trade war and a possible cold war with the United States.  The firmness of Xi’s tone and the reiteration of his signature policies indicate a low probability of a fundamental policy shift in Beijing despite growing doubts about the sustainability of the current path.

Minxin Pei, editor of China Leadership Monitor, is Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College. He is also non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Pei has published in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Project Syndicate, Fortune.com, Nikkei Asian Review, and many scholarly journals and edited volumes. He is the author of China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay (Harvard, 2016); China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Harvard, 2006), and From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Harvard, 1994). Pei formerly was senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1999–2009) and assistant professor of politics at Princeton University (1992–1998). He currently holds the Library of Congress Chair in U.S.-China Relations.​


[1]习近平:在庆祝改革开放40周年大会上的讲话, December 18, 2018, at


[2] Jiang and Hu’s speeches can be accessed at the following links: Jiang Zemin, November 7, 2008, at http://theory.people.com.cn/GB/40557/138172/138173/8302188.html;  Hu Jintao, December 18, 2008, at


[3] The four cardinal principles established by Deng are “uphold the socialist path, uphold the people’s democratic dictatorship, uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and uphold Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism-Leninism.”

[4] The official translation is “In the exploration process, although experienced serious twists and turns, but the original party theoretical results achieved in socialist revolution and construction and great achievements, and creating socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new historical period has provided valuable experience, theoretical preparation, substance basis.”  Because official translation is often awkward and even inaccurate or incomplete, I use my own translation in the main text where I believe the official translation is wrong or inaccurate,  but I will note  the official translation in the endnote.  This will apply to all the translations in this essay.

[5] 中国共产党新闻网, 习近平“两个不能否定”是实现“中国梦”的科学论断, May 10, 201e, at


[6] Jiang also said: “We deeply miss Comrade Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of our country’s reform, opening, and modernization” (我们深切怀念我国改革开放和现代化建设的总设计师邓小平同志). But this sentence is missing from the official translation.

 Hu said: “We must extend a lofty salute to the party’s third-generation central leadership collective with Comrade Jiang Zemin as the core” (我们要向以江泽民同志为核心的党的第三代中央领导集体致以崇高的敬意). 

[7] The official translation of (党的集中统一领导) is “the Party’s centralized leadership.”

[8] The original Chinese phrases describing the four types of “consciousness” are政治意识、大局意识、核心意识、看齐意识 (consciousness of social responsibility, consciousness of rules, consciousness of dedication, and consciousness of integrity; the four types of self-confidence (中国特色社会主义道路自信、理论自信、制度自信、文化自信) can be translated as self-confidence in the socialist path with Chinese characteristics, self-confidence in the theoretical systemic regime, and self-confidence in the culture.

[9] The official translation of this section is “the future will certainly face the challenges of this kind of risk, even unimaginable encounter stormy sea”

[10] The official translation is :rigid and doctrinaire” for 改旗易帜的邪路 and “the old path of developing a closed country” for 封闭僵化的老路.

[11] The official translation appears to make no sense since it reads “We can change the resolute reform, reform should not be reform determined not to change.”

[12] Hu’s language is: “我们党作出我国仍处于并将长期处于社会主义初级阶段的科学论断,形成了党在社会主义初级阶段的基本路线,这就是:领导和团结全国各族人民,以经济建设为中心,坚持四项基本原则,坚持改革开放,自力更生,艰苦创业,为把我国建设成为富强民主文明和谐的社会主义现代化国家而奋斗.”

[13] It should be noted that in his political report to the 19th CCP Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping appeared to be advancing his concept of a “new era” without completely jettisoning the established party line on “the initial stage.” After describing what the “new era” means, Xi mentions the “initial stage” by noting that “the basic dimension of the Chinese context—that our country is still and will long remain in the primary stage of socialism—has not changed” (我国仍处于并将长期处于社会主义初级阶段的基本国情没有变).  However, in his speech on December 18, 2018, Xi does not repeat the latter language. 习近平在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告, October 27, 2017, at


[14] “总任务是实现社会主义现代化和中华民族伟大复兴,在全面建成小康社会的基础上,分两步走在本世纪中叶建成富强民主文明和谐美丽的社会主义现代化强国,” ibid.

[15] Chinese GDP, which was less than 12 percent of U.S. GDP in dollar terms in 1998, was approaching 40 percent of U.S. GDP in 2008.  More importantly, the global financial crisis of 2008 appeared to offer Beijing a golden opportunity to play a more activist role in international affairs.

[16] Intriguingly, the official translation omits this section about BRI “We will use the BRI as a major foundation of its new foreign policy to create, with others, a new platform of international cooperation” (我们要以共建 “一带一路” 为重点,同各方一道打造国际合作新平台).

Featured Image: China Vice-President Xi Jinping stands during a trade agreement ceremony between the two countries at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland February 19, 2012. (Reuters/David Moir)

How the Vatican-Beijing Deal Is Fracturing

By Tuan N. Pham

Last September, to the surprise of many, Pope Francis signed a confidential agreement giving Beijing effective control over who chooses church leaders within China. The settlement was largely viewed by the faithful as a risky proposition based on a flawed understanding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Many believed the agreement will be yet another episode of Beijing making hollow promises in order to buy more time and space to strengthen (or hedge) its positions for future political advantages. Months after the landmark deal, Beijing continues to brazenly renege on the agreement underscored by its deliberate snubbing of the pope during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Italy (March 21-23) since the historic agreement.

On March 1, speaking at a conference on Vatican diplomacy, Cardinal Pietro Parolin (the Holy See’s Secretary of State) defended the controversial deal and emphasized that it is now important “to make the China deal work in practice…and put into effect the agreement.” A few days later, during a visit to Hong Kong, Cardinal Fernando Filoni (special papal envoy) highlighted ongoing efforts to unite the official and underground Catholic churches within China and the need to be patient and positive about the reunification of the churches. The remarks came two days after Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu, the deputy chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (Beijing-loyalist group), stated that the agreement would be reviewed in two years. Altogether and put into context, are the cardinals’ statements tacit acknowledgments (and growing signs of frustration within the Vatican) of Beijing’s blatant breach of contract, public relations (spin control) efforts, or the belated, albeit subtle and diplomatic calling out of wayward Chinese behavior? Or simply more misplaced optimism from key papal foreign policy advisors? Nevertheless, the heart of the matter now is what can and should the Holy Father do about the fracturing agreement?

Papal Assumptions and Agreement Defaults 

The Vatican assumes that Beijing’s public acknowledgment of pontifical authority will matter in Communist China, and hopes the Catholic Church will eventually have greater influence and freedom in church matters within the Chinese state. Church leaders fundamentally do not understand the true nature of the CCP, and underestimate and underappreciate its foremost priority – the survival of the Party. The CCP will not tolerate anyone or any organization (institution) that has the potential to undermine its ruling legitimacy and authority as evidenced by its unrelenting drive to make sure everyone is loyal to the atheist CCP before anything else.

Despite the seemingly binding agreement, Chinese government officials continue to crack down on religions and persecute Christians. There has been a recent surge in police and government actions against churches in China, and increased government pressures toward Christians to join the state-sanctioned churches (administered by approved priests). The main targets of the latest round of religious persecution appear to be unregistered (or underground) churches that have refused to align with Beijing-controlled associations that oversee religious institutions in China. On March 12, Xu Xiaohong – chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (government-controlled body that runs state-approved churches) – threatened to eliminate foreign influence in all churches in China and proposed to establish its own Chinese theology, drawing on the traditions of Chinese culture to promote and practice the core values of socialism.

Beijing still coerces citizens to renounce their faiths on paper in accordance with Xi’s policy to “sinicize” all religions, bring them more firmly under Beijing’s control, and make sure that they do not offer alternate viewpoints to the CCP – the highest and absolute political, legal, and moral authority within the country. As part of that policy, Beijing will subtly and incrementally enhance and expand its influence over clerical appointments and religious teachings to underscore nationalism and patriotism and to promote social stability.

Unkept Promises and Diminishing Diplomatic Credibility 

Beijing often makes grandiose gestures and empty promises to achieve its short-term objectives in order to buy time and space to set the conditions for realizing long-term goals. Beijing did not honor the 1984 Joint Declaration with the United Kingdom to keep Hong Kong free, and has even declared in 2017 that the declaration “no longer had any practical significance.” Beijing broke a bilateral agreement with Manila to mutually withdraw from Scarborough Shoal and then illegally seized the Shoal in 2012. Beijing reclaimed over 3000 acres of land in the South China Sea over the next five years despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to not change any geographic features in the contested and disputed waters, and then broke the 2015 agreement between Xi and then President Barack Obama to not militarize them. More recently, there is mounting evidence that Beijing reneged on another 2015 Xi-Obama agreement to stop cyber espionage through the hacking of government and corporate data. Therefore it is hardly surprising to see the Vatican’s agreements with China being broken. 

Papal Considerations 

Moving forward, the Vatican (and others engaging in relations with China) would be prudent to consider the following if Beijing continues to violate the conditions and principles of the agreement:

(1) Do not mistake grand gestures (perceived concessions) as indicators of enduring commitment to the deal.

(2) Be vigilant for additional contraventions of the agreement and be willing to publicly call Beijing out on them.

(3) Be ready to terminate the deal for breach of contract.

(4) Prepare to impose cost by following in Pope John Paul II’s footsteps to actively confront Chinese Communism to include a “global revolution of the spirit” against its many human right violations. 

(5) Be wary of Chinese “sharp power” to infiltrate and undermine Vatican politics, while furtively promoting a positive image of China and misrepresenting or manipulating information to quell policy dissent and dialogue within the Holy City. (6) Avoid being drawn into Beijing’s political games to diplomatically and economically isolate Taipei. China will persist in persuading (and coercing) the Vatican to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan (quid pro quo).

(7) Disclose the conditions of the deal to regain trust and confidence amongst the skeptical faithfuls within and outside of China.

(8) Take counsel from informed thinkers like retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former archbishop of Hong Kong, who intimately understands the true nature of the CCP and has fearlessly challenged them for decades.    

All in all, Beijing believes that Chinese Communism is the true religion, and the CCP is its one and only church and clergy. For the Party, all religious issues have a bearing on “social harmony, ethnic solidarity, and national security” and therefore all religions within China must adapt themselves to the socialist society. The “sinicization” of religions is part of a larger effort to reinforce the CCP’s control over all aspects of Chinese life to include religious faith, culture, and public discourse.

At the end of the day, Beijing does not seek win-win, they seek win-lose, and when it comes to the battle for the heart and soul of the Chinese people, there can only be one winner – the CCP. 

Tuan Pham is a seasoned China watcher with over two decades of professional experience in the Indo-Pacific and is widely published in international relations and national security affairs. The views expressed are his own.

Featured Image: (L to R) Cardinal John Tong, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, and Bishop Joseph Ha celebrate mass on Tuesday at the Caritas Institute of Higher Education. (Photo: Edmond So)

The Navy’s Newest Nemesis: Hypersonic Weapons

By Jon Isaac


In January 2019, Chinese Communist Party leaders announced that the newest iteration of their DF-17 missile system was being designed to overwhelm and sink U.S. aircraft carriers and surface combatants stationed in the West Pacific. According to official statements from the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), a targeted salvo of eight hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) set aloft by DF-17s would swamp a surface vessel’s close-in point defenses and annihilate it through incredible transfers of kinetic energy. This type of inflammatory language is not new and Chinese officials have been known to exaggerate the capabilities of their military. However, discussion of the DF-17 and similar weapon systems as conventional, theater-level assets, rather than the strategic nuclear capabilities generally associated with hypersonic missiles, poses a set of very serious and immediate threats to decision-makers in Washington.

Rather than continue the popular trend of treating hypersonic weapons primarily as delivery mechanisms for nuclear warheads aimed at strategic targets, China has been quick to utilize the technology to augment its theater-level Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities. Such developments suggest that the most critical threat posed by hypersonic weapons is not strategic, but tactical, operational, and conventional. A focus on hypersonic weapons as operational threats is not a novel concept, though it merits further review as near-peer adversaries continue to develop hypersonic capabilities. Michael Griffin, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, argued recently that the “tactical capability that these sorts of weapons bring to theater conflicts or regional conflicts” is at the core of the hypersonic threat.

Most service branches seem to have adopted a view similar to Griffin’s, with the Army, Air Force, and Navy all independently developing hypersonic platforms intended for a myriad of tactical and operational purposes. For the Navy, however, hypersonics could represent a tectonic shift in weapons technology on par with the decline of battleships and the rise of the aircraft carrier during the Second World War. Indeed, Russia and China’s development and deployment of hypersonic weapons could challenge the decades-long assumption that U.S. naval assets can operate with complete freedom of movement and comparatively little legitimate threat to their survivability. While anti-ship cruise missiles or attack aircraft can be countered through point defense batteries, electronic countermeasures, or even directed energy systems, conventionally armed hypersonic weapons could likely render existing defenses ineffective. As such, with the focus on conventional hypersonics on the rise, the operational impacts of hypersonic weapons systems on the US Navy merit analysis and could prompt a series of doctrinal shifts which could then enhance surface survivability in the hypersonic era. Before engaging in any such analysis, however, one must first grapple with the concept of hypersonics as a whole.

What is a Hypersonic Weapon?

Hypersonic missiles and glide projectiles are those which travel at least Mach 5, or five times faster than the speed of sound. In round numbers, this equates to a speed of about a mile a second. For comparison, even the quickest modern fighters generally top out around Mach 2, with only specialized aircraft capable of reaching Mach 3. Once an airframe reaches Mach 4, 5, and beyond, specialized technologies like supersonic combustion ramjets, or SCRAMJETs, must be used to carve through the air. Unlike traditional jet engines, SCRAMJETs use no moving parts or machinery to direct and combust air, thereby making them incredibly efficient at plowing an airframe through the sky at incredibly high speeds.

Though manned hypersonic flight has occurred in the past, most notably with USAF Major Robert White’s 1961 flight in the NASA X-15, today the technology is most promising when used to propel unmanned vehicles and missiles. Presently, most high-profile hypersonic weapons utilize either SCRAMJET propulsion, as is the case with hypersonic cruise missiles, or are unpowered glide vehicles which are propelled to extreme altitudes by ballistic missile systems, only to turn back towards the surface and glide at extreme speeds towards their targets on a non-ballistic trajectory. This distinction is important, as both hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) are being touted as globally destabilizing weapons systems.

Put simply, hypersonic missiles are dangerously fast. So fast, in fact, that they are relatively impervious to currently fielded missile defense technology. Theater level missile defense systems like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries and the Patriot point-defense missile systems are designed to counter ballistic weapons which fly on relatively predictable speeds and flight trajectories. Conversely, hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles can move erratically and at such incredible speeds so as to render existing defenses mostly irrelevant.

The value of such capability has not gone unnoticed by adversaries. Russia, for example, successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle known as Avangard just this past December. The weapon, they claim, is capable of reaching terminal glide speeds of almost 27 times the speed of sound. The validity of that speed claim has been disputed by a number of experts and defense media outlets, but one thing is known for sure – the weapon exists and the weapon works. Meanwhile, China spent most of 2018 conducting more hypersonic weapons tests than the United States has conducted in the past decade. America’s adversaries have funneled enough resources and manpower into developing hypersonic weapons to raise some eyebrows in Washington, not the least of which include the United States Navy. 

What Does This Mean for the Navy?

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Navy has been able to operate with relative impunity throughout the world’s oceans. At the center of American postwar maritime dominance is the aircraft carrier. While hulking battleships of old held the status of capital ships in U.S. fleets, aircraft carriers rose to prominence as the crown jewel of American power projection. As a result, aircraft carrier battle groups have stood at the cornerstone of American power projection strategy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and have been able to impose their will (and firepower) upon almost any target on the globe. Much in line with the Mahanian fleet doctrines which helped to drive America to victory in the Pacific, modern surface warfare strategies have seen the Navy organize its fleets and surface action groups around a prime directive, protect the aircraft carrier. To date, this strategy has proven successful (albeit with no serious tests in actual combat), with submarine screens, active electronic warfare measures, air defense umbrellas, and AEGIS-equipped surface assets acting as an impenetrable wall behind which America’s flattops are safe from any potential foe.

What happens, then, when new technologies render virtually all existing missile defense and point defense assets ineffective? What happens when the very foundation of modern American maritime dominance, the aircraft carrier battle group, is held at risk by missiles and high-trajectory, high-speed kinetic glide vehicles which are, as admitted by the Pentagon, extremely challenging to existing missile defenses?

This is the fundamental problem with which the Navy must now address. It must be noted, however, that this type of threat against the carrier battle group is not entirely new to the surface warfare community. For example, China’s decades-long development efforts and eventual deployment of Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) and Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) as core to its A2/AD network brought into question the viability of the carrier battle group and questioned whether the hulking warships had a future in a modern battlespace. For the past decade, analysts debated the ramifications of Chinese anti-ship missile capabilities, with increased debate on the topic springing about within the Obama-era Air-Sea Battle concept. A primary feature of the Chinese threat is the reality that increased ASCM and ASBM capabilities may force American carrier battlegroups further out to sea to avoid closing range between themselves and anti-ship missile batteries on shore. In response, analysts have prescribed everything from increased escort vessels to the newly-awarded MQ-25 Stingray Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) as ways to increase carrier survivability. These prescriptions have offered a diverse set of solutions, with the former hoping to deny ASCM/ASMB strikes through conventional air defense and the latter ensuring carrier battle group effectiveness by increasing the reach of conventional strike fighters. In short, threats to the carrier battle group are not new. What makes hypersonics different?

Unlike conventional ASCMs, ASBMs, and other A2/AD threats, there is currently no technological counter to the hypersonic threat. Existing joint efforts between the service branches and DARPA, like the recently announced Glide Breaker program, have endeavored to come up with a viable defense to stop hypersonic weapons from bypassing existing missile defense networks. Unfortunately, no immediately viable kinetic counter-hypersonic technologies have been identified or developed. To make matters worse, top defense officials in the Pentagon’s technology development offices have diagnosed that even existing radar systems would be unable to adequately track and identify a hypersonic threat, to say nothing of prosecuting or defeating such a threat.

The news is not all bad, however. For example, space based sensor arrays have been touted by DOD officials as viable means for “warning, launch detection, surveillance, acquisition, [and] tracking” of hypersonic threats. Similarly, despite the technological challenges, offices like the DOD’s Missile Defense Agency and DARPA have charged ahead at examining high-saturation kinetic projectiles and even directed energy weapons as potential means for destroying hypersonics on a strategic level. While these efforts are all well and good, however, their technological immaturity and prohibitive cost betray the lack of capability to protect American naval assets from hypersonics in the next few years.

Clearly, then, to address the hypersonic threat in the immediate short-term, the Navy cannot rely on technological development and the traditional edge offered by American technological dominance. Instead of looking to laboratories and development houses for hardware tools to counter the threat of hypersonic weapons, the Navy must look to its own assets and shift traditional surface warfare doctrines to ensure survivability. Three doctrinal shifts stand out as potential options for responding to the theater-based use of conventional hypersonics, each with varying levels of plausibility and effectiveness.

Potential Fleet Options

First, a decreased reliance on the concentrated “porcupine” structure of a carrier battle group in favor of distributed use of destroyers, cruisers, smaller LHD flattops, and even LPD transport docks could provide adversaries with such a widely spread set of targets so as to make concentrated hypersonic attack, like the “eight salvo” mission as described by Chinese authorities, unfeasible. By disaggregating targets around carrier battle groups, the Navy could deny its adversaries the ability to reach the concentration levels of hypersonic firepower needed to effectively eliminate the target. This shift is not without its faults. The notion of networked and distributed surface operations is not a new one and blunders in attempting to implement this type of fleet structure in the past have been the bane of the surface Navy. Moreover, the act of distributing and decreasing the density of American warships in a surface action group or carrier battle group could limit the power projection capabilities of such a force, thereby hindering one of the Navy’s core missions.

A second option posits that further utilization of unmanned undersea assets and existing nuclear-powered submarines may prove to be an effective way to address some of the shortcomings brought about by a more vulnerable carrier battle group. For example, increased development and deployment of guided missile submarines, be they conventional boats like the Navy’s modified Ohio-class SSGNs or emerging unmanned options like Boeing’s Orca/Echo Voyager XLUUV platform, would provide the Navy with several far-forward domain capabilities. Such assets would allow the Navy to field missile strike and reconnaissance assets closer to adversary coastlines without bringing surface assets into the effective reach of hypersonic weapons. While submarines will never be able to field their own independent combat air wing or project visible American power in the same way a carrier can, they could engage in some of the maritime patrol and missile strike projection operations previously led by carrier battle groups. Again, this is not an impervious solution since many of the key operations shouldered by aircraft carriers are unique to their incredible deterrence and firepower projection capabilities.

Finally, DARPA and the Department of the Navy have highlighted increased conventional missile deterrence and conventional disruption operations as potential routes for driving adversaries to “think twice” in the use of their hypersonic missiles in the first place. As argued by Robert Farley, a professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA, there are an incredibly complex series of decisions and steps which must go off without a hitch for an adversary to successfully conduct a strike against a carrier battle group. “Disrupting any single one,” Farley writes, “can slow or entirely avoid the attack.” As such, the Navy could structure its fleet doctrines and operational focuses to counter the myriad of technologies which support a hypersonic strike, rather than attempt to counter the hypersonic weapon itself. For example, targeted jamming of missile guidance nodes around the region or destruction of the aircraft and satellites which are required to guide such a weapon to its target. This notion spreads beyond merely Navy-commanded operations, with cyber-attacks on networked hypersonic systems standing as a possible counter to their launch and targeting.

Like with previous suggestions, this “full spectrum” approach to preventing hypersonic targeting or strike of a traditional surface group is not without its flaws. For example, preemptively engaging in any such attacks or jamming operations could escalate a tactical or immediate political situation. Though it could decrease the likelihood of a successful hypersonic strike, thereby freeing up American carrier battle groups to do what they do best, it could just as easily prove pyrrhic should the situation escalate out of control.

Still, there is no single doctrinal answer to the hypersonic threat. Instead, the Navy must be willing to evolve from the sacred and historically effective Mahanian capital-ship doctrine which it has adhered to in the past and adopt surface organization tactics which decrease the likelihood of a hypersonic attack in the first place and minimize the potential effectiveness of such an attack should it take place.


For the past few months, press sources have been flooding the internet with stories about impervious hypersonic weapons which could deliver nuclear warheads onto targets in the American homeland quickly and with no warning. While the hypersonic nuclear threat is a valid one, focusing on it betrays the real threat posed by conventional hypersonic systems which are not subject to the deterrent effects of the American nuclear triad. Conventional operational use of hypersonic weapons could render existing naval surface asset structures ineffective. Rather than rely on the historically dominant American tech sector, however, the Navy must address the short-term threats posed by hypersonics through evolution of warfighting doctrine, tactics, and fleet organization. Just as aviation development brought a close to the age of the battleship, hypersonic weapons could bring to end the age of the traditional carrier battle group.

Jon Isaac is a pseudonym for a developing security analyst.

Featured Image: Ground crew members make the final checks to the X-51A Waverider scramjet, which is affixed to an Edwards B-52H Stratofortress before being flown over the Pacific Ocean and launched June 13, 2011. (Photo by Bob Ferguson/Boeing)

The Space Force Needs Policy and Strategy, Part 1

By Tuan N. Pham

Last year on June 18, President Donald Trump directed the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish the “Space Force.” The Space Force would be a distinct but equal military service to the Air Force, which has presided over U.S. military space operations since the establishment of an Air Force major command (Space Command) in 1982, subsequent elevation to a unified combatant command (U.S. Space Command) in 1985, and then finally relegation back into the U.S. Air Force as the Air Force Space Command years later. On August 9, the president further instructed DoD to immediately begin the process to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. On October 23, the National Space Council served up six recommendations to the president to further advance the establishment and sustainment of the proposed sixth military branch. The recommendations call for a unified space command to be known as U.S. Space Command; a legislative proposal for a Space Force; a funding plan in the FY2020 budget; an interagency authorities review; a joint Space Development Agency for technology procurement; and strengthened relationships between military space and the intelligence community. On December 18, the president ordered the Pentagon to re-establish the U.S. Space Command as a unified combatant command for space operations. Two days later, the president announced the Space Force will reside within the Department of the Air Force.

Since the President’s directives, subsequent think tank and media commentaries have focused largely on the necessity for a Space Force. This includes the imperative to counter Chinese (and Russian) growing space ambitions and capabilities, and managing the multitude of bureaucratic, budgetary, doctrinal, command relationship, and legal implications and challenges to establish the sixth military service.

One of the more thoughtful and insightful analysis on the imperative to counter growing Chinese space ambitions and capabilities – in terms of great powers competition – was written by Namrata Goswami in The Diplomat. In the article titled “Waking Up to China’s Space Dream,” he posited that the “political vision for space, championed by the Chinese leadership, is to build internal capacity that can support a space presence and establish dominance and industrialization that would in turn enhance the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Underscoring Goswami’s point, China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe made the world’s first landing on the far side of the moon on January 3, and Beijing announced shortly thereafter more lunar missions later in the year to lay the groundwork for a moon base and an ambitious plan to explore Mars by 2020. 

Interestingly, Chinese media and punditry have also offered their opinions on the proposed U.S. Space Force, most notably the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) Daily and Global Times (subsidiary of the PLA Daily). The former proffered a Chinese assessment of U.S. challenges and opportunities. The Chinese authors surprisingly understood the complexity and nuances of U.S. space policies and operations and the underlying politics and bureaucracy involved. The latter asserted that “outer space has been a place of peace…the United Nations resolutely opposes the militarization of outer space and all countries have remained constrained in terms of their research of military space systems…by establishing a Space Force the United States has started an outer space arms race.” The provocative (and perhaps contradictory) statement was made despite the 2015 establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), and recent plans by the PLA Air Force to expand its presence in space. The PLASSF, China’s own Space Force, consolidated, integrated, and synchronized all of its space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities under one umbrella organization.

More strategic guidance is needed to guide and manage the operations of the new U.S. Space Force. Hence, this is part one of a three-part series that revisits past recommendations for a new U.S. space policy and strategy in terms of ends, ways, and means – freedom of space, space preeminence, and full-spectrum space deterrence, respectively. Part two will take a step back for strategic context and re-examine a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. Part three will then discuss suggestions on how America (through the Space Force) can promote stability while prolonging U.S. space preeminence into the 21st century…additional considerations for U.S. policymakers as they develop a new strategic guidance for the Space Force. Altogether, these erstwhile proposals have become more relevant and acceptable with the passage of the new muscular National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and can help provide a strategic framework for space operations, as well as advocacy for space requirements and capabilities.

Freedom of Space (Ends)

One of the principal goals of current U.S. strategic guidance for space – 2010 National Space Policy, 2011 National Security Space Strategy, and 2012 DoD Space Policy– is maintaining the stability, sustainability, and free access to and use of space for all. They specifically call for the conduct of space operations without interference and in ways that promote transparency and enable the sharing of benefits provided by the peaceful use of space. These lofty and benevolent U.S. goals are consistent with those of the United Nations that supports the conduct of space activities for peaceful purposes and the benefit of all mankind.

There are historical precedents for guiding the consideration of universal space security and stability, the naval precedent perhaps foremost. For more than 500 years, great nations (maritime powers) maintained powerful and globally deployed navies to guarantee the freedom of the seas for all (net providers of maritime security), a pre-condition for international trade, economic development, and global prosperity underwritten by naval power ensuring the free flow of maritime commerce. Hence, there is a strong need going forward for a comparable guarantor of the freedom of space (net provider of space security) to ensure the free flow of space commerce, a leadership role that calls out to America, with allied support to fill. 

Space Preeminence (Ways)

Just as maritime preeminence is necessary to guarantee the freedom of the seas, so too is space preeminence needed to guarantee the freedom of space. The extant strategic guidance implicitly acknowledged the necessity of space preeminence to enable the stated goals, but stopped short of explicitly affirming them outright. The next space policy and strategy should openly and fully commit America to maintaining that “degree of preeminence in space of one force over another that permits the conduct of operations by the former at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force (freedom of action).” If not, the United States may unwisely cede this critical domain to China (and Russia).

In its latest white paper on space published in December 2016, Beijing reaffirmed its strategic intent to use its rapidly growing space program (largely military space) to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power in accordance with its strategic plan for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). Ye Peijian, the head of China’s lunar exploration program, remarked that the high grounds of space will bear directly on Chinese strategic interests in the coming decades. He made references to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands and Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, and suggested that China sees space in terms of astro-strategic terrain rather than simply the focus of scientific exploration: 

“The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku), Mars is Huangyan Island (Scarborough). If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.”

Full-Spectrum Space Deterrence (Means)

Many space strategists view space deterrence through the doctrinal lens of denying benefit, imposing cost, and encouraging restraint. On the whole, the current strategic guidance appears to rely heavily on denying benefit (resilience; mission assurance; shared reliance; and capability and capacity to operate in and through a degraded, disrupted, or denied space environment) to deter and defeat aggression by blunting the adversary’s offensive counter-space (OCS) capabilities. The other viable deterrent tools (threat of preemption, active defense, and redline) appear neither considered nor accepted. This limiting take on space deterrence is largely rooted in the hopeful belief of assured resilience, and therefore may have put too much confidence on denying benefit at the expense of imposing cost and encouraging restraint. U.S. policymakers may want to consider adopting a broader, more complete, and more balanced approach toward space deterrence if it hopes to “fully” deter or make a potential adversary think that starting a war or escalating a conflict would be worse than not doing so – particularly if that potential adversary is less reliant on space capabilities than America.

Tactical Preemption and Active Defense

The language and tone of the standing strategic guidance are largely ambiguous in terms of deterrence. The vague and imprecise language can be inadvertently misinterpreted by a potential adversary as perceived U.S. willingness to absorb a possibly disabling first strike, and could encourage a highly destabilizing preemptive attack since America has far more to lose in terms of warfighting capabilities than the attacker due to the offense-inclined nature of space conflict itself. Holding space assets at risk seems far easier and cheaper than defending them considering the wide range of threat vectors, large target sets, and predictable satellite orbital profiles. Moreover, absorbing such a first strike with all of its potential destructiveness, and then striking back against an adversary fully anticipating a retaliatory strike, can be militarily unsound and risky.

In space, offense dominance scales up – “a power that strikes aggressively should be, in theory, able to get the upper hand, or at least get the greatest possible use of whatever OCS it has invested in.” Thus, employment of tactical preemption and tactical active defense may be appropriate. “Tactical preemption” is the use of military power to deny an adversary specific terrain or gains by attacking potential imminent threats before they can be employed. “Tactical active defense” is the interception and disruption of an imminent attack before it can affect its intended target. Including related language into the next strategic guidance can keep all deterrent options on the table, and coupled with resilience and declaratory statements (redlines), may give greater pause to any potential adversary contemplating a highly destabilizing first strike.


Declaratory statement of redlines – actions beyond which would trigger a significant U.S. response – is one important means to shape and influence a potential adversary’s risk perception and calculus, lower the likelihood of misinterpretation, promote transparency, and encourage restraint. Declarative redlines make it explicit that certain actions carry unacceptable risks and consequences, and clearly lay out the conditions and willingness to inflict unacceptable retaliatory damage or destruction. In contrast, “ambiguity in deterrent threats, often held up as strategically artful, may actually encourage a potential adversary’s miscalculation and lead to greater risk taking.” To be effective, redlines need to be credible. Potential adversaries will not take redlines seriously if Washington does not back-up them up with concrete and consistent actions.

Current U.S. declaratory space statements are deliberately vague to provide national leaders a wide range of policy options. The unintended consequences of such political flexibility might be a potential adversary not knowing what to expect, being surprised by the response, and misinterpreting the intent of the response. Therefore, declaratory statements may be warranted for military space capabilities relating to missile warning and C2 of nuclear forces and positioning, navigation, and timing systems relating to key force-projection capabilities. Attacks (kinetic and non-kinetic) on these critical military space systems should be declared unacceptable and that they will be met with “dire” consequences – keeping the consequences deliberately vague in this case. U.S. retaliation should be at the time, place, manner, and degree of own choosing. Potential adversaries do not need to know what, how, when, and where America would retaliate; just that America would in some fashion.

Offensive Counterspace Capabilities

That being said, redlines only work if they are backed up by proven capabilities to carry out the deterrent threats. The continued development, deployment, and employment of OCS capabilities is necessary to enable space warfighting capability and full-spectrum space deterrence unless military space assets can be given far greater resilience than what little they have today. A credible second strike capability requires credible OCS capabilities, preferably ones that are the least destabilizing. There is also danger for America in falling behind strategic competitors like China (and Russia) in OCS capabilities. Both nations are unilaterally and aggressively pursuing robust OCS capabilities of their own. 

The heart of the matter remains what type of OCS capabilities, how much, and to what extent should they be publicly disclosed. Regarding the former, some argue none or limited quantities are required while others call for robust OCS capabilities. Whatever the right answer may be, it is difficult to see how one can deter without “some” OCS capabilities. As for the latter, it may be best for now to keep OCS capabilities deliberately vague. Potential adversaries do not need to know what type or how much America has, just that America has the capability to act if it so chooses.   

Tuan Pham has extensive professional experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-41 carrying the second U.S. Air Force Space-Based Infrared System GEO-2 satellite March 19, 2013, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. (United Launch Alliance photo by Pat Corkery)