Tag Archives: global commons

China: Connected Strategic Themes Across Contested Global Commons Pt. 1

Are there connected Chinese strategic themes that cut across the contested and interlinked global commons (domains) of maritime, space, and cyberspace? If so, what are they and what could the United States do about them?

By Tuan N. Pham

Last November, I wrote an article titled “China’s Maritime Strategy on the Horizon” highlighting a fleeting strategic opportunity for Washington to shape and influence Beijing’s looming and evolving maritime strategy. I posited that Chinese maritime strategists have long called for a maritime strategy; China’s maritime activities are driven by its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory” crucial for its national development, security, and status; and Beijing may be trying to fill domestic legal gaps that it sees as hindering its ability to defend territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS), and justify its growing activities in international waters. The latter point is underscored by recent media reports from Beijing considering the revision of its 1984 Maritime Traffic Safety Law, which would allow Chinese authorities to bar some foreign ships from passing through Chinese territorial waters. If passed, this will be another instance of China shaping domestic maritime laws to support its developing and evolving maritime strategy, and part of a larger continuing effort to set its own terms for international legal disputes that Beijing expects will grow as its maritime reach expands.

I then further suggested that Beijing’s forthcoming maritime strategy will shape its comportment and actions in the maritime domain in the near- and far-term, and perhaps extend into the other contested global commons of space and cyberspace as well. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I explore this potential cross-domain nexus by examining the latest Chinese space white paper and cyberspace strategies. In Part 2, I will derive possibly connected strategic themes that cut across the interlinked global commons and discuss how the United States could best respond.   

China’s Space Activities in 2016 White Paper (December 2016)

“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry, and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly.”

On December 27, 2016, China’s Information Office of the State Council published its fourth white paper on space titled “China’s Space Activities in 2016.” The paper and the preceding 2011, 2006, and 2000 papers largely follow a pattern of release, sequenced and synchronized with the governmental cycle of Five-Year Plans that are fundamental to Chinese centralized planning. Last year’s paper provides the customary summary of China’s space accomplishments over the past five years and a roadmap of key activities and milestones for the next five years.

Since the white paper was the first one issued under President Xi Jinping, it is not surprising that the purpose, vision, and principles therein are expressed in terms of his world view and aspiration to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. Therefore, one should read beyond the altruistic language and examine the paper through the realpolitik lens of the purpose and role of space to the Chinese Dream; the vision of space power as it relates to the Chinese Dream; and principles through which space will play a part in fulfilling the Chinese Dream. Notable areas to consider include Beijing’s intent to provide basic global positioning services to countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road in 2018; construction of the Belt and Road Initiative Space Information Corridor; strengthening bilateral and multilateral cooperation that serves the Belt and Road Initiative; and attaching the importance of space cooperation under the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) cooperation mechanism and within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Although the white paper is largely framed in terms of China’s civilian space program, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is subtly present throughout the paper in the euphemism of “national security.” The three references in the purpose, vision, and major tasks deliberately understate (or obfuscate) Beijing’s strategic intent to use its rapidly growing space program (largely military space) to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power. In short, China’s space program does not have structures in place that make meaningful separation between military and civil programs, and those technologies and systems developed for supposedly civil purposes can also be applied–and often are–for military purposes.

The white paper highlights concerted efforts to examine extant international laws and develop accompanying national laws to better govern its expanding space program and better regulate its increasing space-related activities. Beijing intends to review, and where necessary, update treaties and reframe international legal principles to accommodate the ever-changing strategic, operational, and tactical landscapes. All in all, China wants to leverage the international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to advance its national interests in space without constraining or hindering its own freedom of action in the future where the balance of space power may prove more favorable.

China’s National Cyberspace Security Strategy (December 2016)

“China will devote itself to safeguarding the nation’s interests in sovereignty, security, and development in cyberspace.”

On the same day as the issuance of the “China’s Space Activities in 2016” white paper, the Cyberspace Administration of China also released Beijing’s first cyberspace strategy titled “National Cyberspace Security Strategy” to endorse China’s positions and proposals on cyberspace development and security and serve as a roadmap for future cyberspace security activity. The strategy aims to build China into a cyberspace power while promoting an orderly, secure, and open cyberspace, and more importantly, defending its national sovereignty in cyberspace.

The strategy interestingly characterizes cybersecurity as “the nation’s new territory for sovereignty;” highlights as one of its key principles “no infringement of sovereignty in cyberspace will be tolerated;” and states intent to “resolutely defend sovereignty in cyberspace” as a strategic task. All of which reaffirm Xi’s previous statement on the importance of cyberspace sovereignty. At last year’s World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Xi boldly exclaimed, “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyberspace development, model of cyberspace regulation and Internet public policies, and participate in international cyberspace governance on an equal footing.”

Attendees listen to a speech by China’s President Xi Jinping shown on a screen during the opening ceremony of the third annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town of Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, China November 16, 2016. (Reuters/Aly Song)

Both the space white paper and cyberspace security strategy reflect Xi’s world view and aspiration to realize the Chinese Dream. The latter’s preamble calls out the strategy as an “important guarantee to realize the Two Centenaries struggle objective and realize the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Therefore, like the white paper, one should also read beyond the noble sentiments of global interests, global peace and development, and global security, and examine the strategy through the underlying context of the Chinese Dream. What is the purpose and role of cyberspace to national rejuvenation; the vision of cyberspace power as it relates to national rejuvenation; and through which principles will cyberspace play a role in fulfilling national rejuvenation? Promoting the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative, raising the international telecommunications interconnection and interaction levels, paving a smooth Information Silk Road, and strengthening the construction of the Chinese online culture are some notable areas to consider.  

The role of the PLA is likewise carefully understated (or obfuscated) throughout the strategy in the euphemism of “national security.” The 13 references in the introduction, objectives, principles, and strategic tasks quietly underscore the PLA’s imperatives to protect itself (and the nation) against harmful cyberspace attacks and intrusions from state and non-state actors and to extend the law of armed conflict into cyberspace to manage increasing international competition – both of which acknowledge cyberspace as a battlespace that must be contested and defended.   

The strategy also puts high importance on international and domestic legal structures, standards, and norms. Beijing wants to leverage the existing international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to develop accompanying national laws to advance its national interests in cyberspace without constraining or hindering its own freedom of action in the future where the balance of cyberspace power may become more favorable.

China’s International Strategy for Cyberspace Cooperation (March 2017)

“Cyberspace is the common space of activities for mankind. The future of cyberspace should be in the hands of all countries. Countries should step up communications, broaden consensus and deepen cooperation to jointly build a community of shared future in cyberspace.”

On March 1, 2017, the Foreign Ministry and State Internet Information Office issued Beijing’s second cyberspace strategy titled “International Strategy for Cyberspace Cooperation.” The aim of the strategy is to build a community of shared future in cyberspace, notably one that is based on peace, sovereignty, shared governance, and shared benefits. The strategic goals of China’s participation in international cyberspace cooperation include safeguarding China’s national sovereignty, security, and interests in cyberspace; securing the orderly flow of information on the Internet; improving global connectivity; maintaining peace, security, and stability in cyberspace; enhancing international rule of law in cyberspace; promoting the global development of the digital economy; and deepening cultural exchange and mutual learning.

The strategy builds on the previously released cyberspace security strategy and trumpets the familiar refrains of national rejuvenation (Chinese Dream); global interests, peace and development, and security; and development of national laws to advance China’s national interests in cyberspace. Special attention was again given to the contentious concept of cyberspace sovereignty in support of national security and social stability – “No country should pursue cyberspace hegemony, interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, or engage in, condone or support cyberspace activities that undermine other countries’ national security.” The strategy also interestingly calls for the demilitarization of cyberspace just like the white paper does for space despite China’s growing offensive cyberspace and counterspace capabilities and capacities – “The tendency of militarization and deterrence buildup in cyberspace is not conducive to international security and strategic mutual trust – China always adheres to the principle of the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes the weaponization of or an arms race in outer space.” Incongruously, a paragraph after discouraging cyberspace militarization, the strategy states that China will “expedite the development of a cyber force and enhance capabilities in terms of situational awareness, cyber defense, supporting state activities, and participating in international cooperation, to prevent major cyber crises, safeguard cyberspace security, and maintain national security and social stability.”


This concludes the short discourse on the latest Chinese space white paper and cyberspace strategies and sets the conditions for further discussion. Part 2 examines possibly connected strategic themes that cut across the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace, and strategic opportunities for the United States. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: June 3, 2013. Assembly of the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft and the Long March-2F carrier rocket at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, northwest China’s Gansu Province. (Xinhua/Liang Jie) 

The Final Frontier – The Future of Defending Space as a Global Commons (Pt. 2)

By Tuan N. Pham

Part 1 of this two-part series outlined a conceptual framework for characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. It made the case that instability arises when there is a real or perceived lack of order and security with the worst possible outcome being the “Thucydides Trap” – a rising power opposes a dominant power leading to a great power competition for space preeminence. On the flip side, it also made the case that stability arises when there is a real or perceived sense of order and security with the best possible outcome being the universal acceptance that “space is big enough for everyone and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep it free for exploration and use by all.” With this backdrop, Part 2 will focus on the ways and means the United States can employ to reduce instability and reinforce stability in the space domain while maintaining space preeminence into the 21st century.          

U.S. Space Stability Challenges

Preeminence Puzzle. As the guarantor of the global economy and provider of security, stability, and leadership because of its powerful military and vast network of allies and partners, the United States delivers global public goods that others cannot. A case in point is the current volatility of the South China Sea. Without the stabilizing presence of the U.S. Navy operating on the high seas there, Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism could destabilize the region, damaging both regional and global commerce and possibly leading to an unwanted conflict. Thus, there is a strong need going forward for a comparable guarantor of the freedom of space (a net provider of space security) to ensure the free flow of space commerce, a leadership role that calls out to the United States, supported by allies and partners, to fill.

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. By committing to space preeminence, America will better protect its critical strengths in space; enhance its space deterrence posture by being able to impose larger costs, deny greater benefits, and encourage more restraint; prolong its terrestrial preeminence; and reverse the growing perception of American decline.

Decline is a deliberate choice, not an inevitable reality. Having complementary policies and strategies in contested domains fosters unity of effort, optimizes resource allocation, sends a strong deterrent message to potential adversaries, and reassures allies and partners. To do otherwise invites strategic misalignment and miscommunication and encourages potential competitors to further advance their counter-balancing efforts. Put simply, if the United States does not preserve its current strategic advantages in space, a rising power like China may gradually eclipse America as the preeminent power in space which will have cascading strategic ramifications on earth.

This greater role will demand more analysis and planning to address the anticipated challenges of domestic fiscal constraints; emerging and resurgent space powers; potentially destabilizing space competition; escalation control; and establishing and maintaining partnerships for collective space security through risk sharing and burden sharing – similar to the challenges now facing the U.S. rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The puzzle for American policymakers is whether it may be more cost-effective to invest now and maintain the current strategic advantage in space or pay more later to make up for diminished space capabilities and capacities while accepting greater strategic risk in the interim.

Workers prepare the TacSat-2 micro satellite for thermal vacuum testing at the Space Vehicles Directorate. (Air Force photo) 

Domain Dilemma. America fundamentally has two space deterrent and response options – (1) threaten to respond in the same domain; (2) threaten cross-domain retaliation to underwrite the deterrence of attacks on U.S. space capabilities. The former represents a vertical escalation if the response is disproportionate to the attack, and possibly “some” horizontal escalation depending on the target sets. This could result in large amounts of space debris and the resetting of international norms of behavior by legitimizing space attacks. The latter option represents a vertical escalation if the response is “perceived” as disproportionate to the attack, and horizontal escalation respective to the other domains. Nonetheless, the scope, nature, and degree of action must ultimately strike the delicate balance between the need to demonstrate the willingness to escalate and the imperative to not provoke further escalation in order to maintain space stability. The dilemma for the United States is where, when, and how best to deter; and if deterrence fails, where, when, and how best to respond.  

Reliance/Resilience Riddle. Enhancing and securing space-enabled information services (SEIS) is now essential to U.S. national security, a daunting task considering that space has become more and more “congested, contested, and competitive” and less permissive for the United States. Therefore, the current strategic guidance – 2010 National Space Policy (NSP), 2011 National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), and 2012 DoD Space Policy (DSP) – directs the U.S. government to reduce the nation’s disproportionate reliance on space capabilities and the vulnerability of its high-value space assets through partnerships and resiliency, respectively. The riddle for America is how best to manage the dichotomy between reliance and vulnerability through resilience.

Offensive Counter-Space (OCS) Conundrum. Space warfare is intrinsically offense-inclined due to the uncertainty, vulnerability, predictability, and fragility of space assets; and ever-increasing OCS capabilities to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems. The latter can be destabilizing (warfighting capability) or stabilizing (deterrence) depending on one’s perspective. Hence, the conundrum for the United States is not whether or not to possess OCS capabilities – but how best to use them to deter and retaliate if deterrence fails; what type, how much, and to what extent should they be publicly disclosed; and how to leverage the existing international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to manage them without constraining or hindering one’s own freedom of action.

Moreover, OCS capabilities continue to grow in number and sophistication driven by the “offense-offense” and “defense-offense” competition spirals influencing military space policies in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and elsewhere. OCS developments to defeat defensive counter-space (DCS) measures drive further OCS developments for fear of falling behind in offensive capabilities and encouraging a first strike by an adversary, while DCS developments to mitigate OCS measures further drive OCS developments to remain viable as deterrent and offensive tools.     

Refining Military Space Capability  

Develop Cross-Domain Deterrence Options. Deterrence across the interconnected domains may offer the best opportunity to deter attacks on U.S. space capabilities, and if deterrence fails, retaliate across domains to deter further attacks. Prudence then suggests the need for some level of active planning prior to the onset of increased tensions and hostilities. American policymakers and defense planners should have on hand a broad set of potential cross-domain responses to the threats of space attack or the space attack itself. The responses should be organized by the levels of force application, provocation, and risk; dynamic enough to accommodate the ever-changing strategic, operational, and tactical conditions; and part of a larger menu of policy options to better manage tensions and escalation during pre-hostilities and identify off-ramps during hostilities. On balance, the decision on whether or not, when, and how to implement these responses should be viewed through the lens of cost and risk imposition, proportionality, strategic policy coherence, and desired outcome.        

Continue to Increase Resiliency. Strengthening the resiliency of the U.S. national security space architecture may offset the offensive inclination of space warfare by lessening the vulnerability and fragility of space assets, assuring retaliatory capabilities, and denying benefits of OCS operations.

Building up space protection capabilities will decrease the vulnerability and fragility of high-value space assets by presenting more targets (disaggregated space operations, micro-satellites), hiding targets (signature reduction), maneuvering targets (dynamic orbital profiles for unpredictability and threat avoidance), hardening targets (strengthened space assets and networks against kinetic and non-kinetic attacks), and complicating targets (hosted payloads on commercial, civil, and allied or partnered nations satellites).

Mission assurance can be sustained by responsive launch capabilities (launch-on-demand services for rapid reconstitution of degraded or lost space capabilities), Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program (mass production of microsatellites in a short period of time), and “sleeper” orbiting satellites (standby spares that will activate when needed).

Launch of Chinese military communications satellite (Xinhua)

Mission continuity in a degraded, disrupted, or denied space environment can be ensured by the following measures: developing standard operating procedures for continuity of operations; hosting some SEIS in commercial, civil, and allied or partnered space systems as part of a surge in space capability and as a measure of redundancy; building and sustaining alternative terrestrial-based systems to reduce SEIS reliance – chip-scale combinatorial atomic navigator for precision, navigation, and timing services; high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial systems for persistent ISR; and fiber-optic cabling and terrestrial radio and microwave communications devices for secured C2.  

Continue to Invest in OCS Capabilities. The heart of the matter remains what type of OCS capabilities (reversible, irreversible, or both) and how much. Regarding the latter, 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 or retaliate if deterrence fails without “some” OCS capabilities, especially considering that potential competitors like China and Russia are actively developing their own OCS capabilities to challenge U.S. space preeminence, and by extension, terrestrial preeminence.

Strengthening Space Governance

Since the elimination of OCS capabilities is unlikely, attention and effort should be placed on managing them instead. The extant international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior offer some ways and means to reduce OCS capabilities to a manageable level, restrict their proliferation, and establish constraints and restraints on their employment. The space powers should review the existing international agreements and legal principles, and determine what additional conventions or provisions are needed. Goals can be to set acceptable limits of OCS capabilities; renounce the first-use of OCS; establish confidence-building measures; and limit the possession of OCS capabilities to select space powers and out of the hands of “pariah” states (North Korea and Iran) and undesirable non-state actors (terrorist, criminal, and business groups).  

Space powers should also review and update current treaties and legal principles to govern the changing strategic, operational, and tactical landscapes, particularly those overseeing activities in space, registration of space objects, and space sovereignty. States should negotiate new treaties to manage emerging space challenges like space debris, RF interference, and other space threats. Finally, parties must develop new capabilities and protocols for verifying treaty compliance and enforcement.               

The international community should seek to empower the United Nations (UN) governance of space and space activities, particularly in the areas of regulation, arbitration, and collaboration. The UN should consider further defining and codifying the rights and responsibilities of nation-states with respect to their activities in space through a UN Convention on the Law of Space (similar to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea); establishing the International Space Authority (similar to the International Seabed Authority) for the regulation of space-based resources; and forming the International Tribunal for the Law of Space (similar to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea) for arbitration of space-related disputes. Transform the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs into an empowered World Space Council to promote international collaboration in space, manage emerging space challenges, and act as a forum for global contingency planning and preparedness for potential space threats.

Expand Partnerships. The 2010 NSP, 2011 NSSS, and 2012 DSP call for building enduring partnerships with other space-faring nations, civil space organizations, and commercial space entities to share benefits, costs, and risks; strengthen extant alliances through increased cooperation across the various space sectors; spread SEIS reliance to others; and provide greater space deterrence and stability through collective defense. That being said, partnerships also carry with them risks and concerns. Risks include the unpredictability of horizontal escalation (attack on U.S. space assets with hosted payloads involves other parties) and greater potential damages and unintended consequences (more interdependent players and things that can go wrong). Concerns center around autonomy (transparency, response, and responsiveness constrained by other parties), operational security (information sharing, technology transfer, and increased risk of insider threat), legality (intellectual property rights, loss compensation, and sovereignty), and the interoperability of disparate space systems (varying levels of sophistication amongst partners). All things considered, the benefits outweigh the risks, and concerns are manageable in varying degrees.

Partners should build on extant bilateral/multilateral partnerships to complement and supplement U.S. space capabilities. They must leverage emerging opportunities like the Memorandum of Understanding between the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia for joint space operations and Japan’s plans to develop a military space force by 2019. These partnerships may vary in nature, scope, and extent depending on the strategic and operational imperatives, costs, risks, and domestic legal constraints; and could involve capacity building, information sharing, technology transfer, interoperability, integration, and joint operations.   

Partners should promote international collaboration and foster shared reliance on space-enabled capabilities in the fields of scientific exploration (International Space Station, interplanetary probes, and manned space flights), commercial ventures (launch vehicles, micro-satellites, space tourism, and space mining), global positioning system or GPS interoperability (United States, Russia, European Union, and China), shared space situational awareness or SSA (Space Fence and Geosynchronous SSA Program), space-based observations (climate change, weather, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief), space debris, and asteroid defense.


At the end of the day, space stability occurs when there is universal acceptance that “space is big enough for everyone and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep it free for exploration and use by all.” Moving forward, there is a common interest in safeguarding the collective need for guaranteed freedom of space under the imperative for all space-faring nations to support an international framework that encourages cooperation and manages competition in the space domain.  

Tuan N. Pham is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government

Featured Image: Launch of Russian military satellite (Russian Ministry of Defense)