US-China Space Rivalry: A Herald of a New Cold War?

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When the Cold War period is considered, one of the issues that come to mind is the space rivalry between the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In order to show their superiority against each other in both states, they headed to space and carried out important studies in space. Thus, the competition between the USA and the USSR paved the way for space studies.

With the end of the Cold War, the USA did not show as much interest in space studies as before. However, with China’s gaining momentum in space and drawing attention to its space studies, the USA’s interest in space has increased again. Considering the space rivalry between the two states within the framework of the tense relations between China and the USA in recent years, the question of whether this is the forerunner of a new Cold War comes to the fore.

The fact that China carried out an anti-satellite weapon test in January 2007, which destroyed its air satellite, prompted many Western states, especially the USA, to take action points of security. This test has shown that China has the power to demolish US satellites in low earth orbit if it requests to.[1] However, due to the mutual economic dependence between China and the USA at that time, it seemed unlikely that the two states would come face to face.[2] Nevertheless, the trade war that broke out between the USA and China in 2018, the increasing US-China tension over Taiwan in August 2022, and the spy balloon incident in the USA revealed that nothing was the same as before. For this reason, the escalation of space competition between the two states is also possible. There are already many developments that reinforce this possibility.

In the 21st century, the USA and China are the two countries that are far ahead in space activities. Therewhile, the space activities of these two states are largely separated from each other. Space studies is an area that requires high cost, expertise, and technology. For this reason, it is more advantageous for the parties to carry out mostly in cooperation between states. The International Space Station, jointly realized by Russia, the USA, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency, is the best instance of interstate space cooperation. Nonetheless, Washington and Beijing, although they are two important space powers, carry out their work in space separately from each other.

There is virtually no direct link between the US and China regarding space technology research, development, and operations. Notably, it is possible to say that the obstacles that the USA has placed against China have led to the deepening of this divergence.[3] For example, after the USA banned China from participating in joint space studies and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration excluded China from the International Space Station in 2011, the Beijing administration took steps to develop its own space station. In this way, China has gained its own space station, which is not dependent on the USA.

Similarly, China launched its own global satellite positioning system, BeiDou, in 2000. Thanks to this satellite, China has freed itself from the need for a global satellite positioning system belonging to the USA or any state. China is striving to become a self-sufficient space power by improving its space capabilities day by day.

The Washington governance, which is aware of China’s progress in space, has made an effort to further its work in space. In 2022, a US general’s statement that space has fundamentally changed due to the increasing arms race and that China is the most challenging threat in this context, clearly reveals the perception of distrust of the USA towards China.[4]

In the Military Strategy Document published by China in 2015, outer space and cyberspace were defined as strategic competitive regions.[5] Besides China, establishing the US Space Command as the 11th combat command in September 2019 is another signal of the increasing militarization in space.[6]

On the other hand, the increasing number of satellites in space is among the indicators of competition in space. According to 2023 data, there are 4,582 satellites in space in total. Among these satellites, the USA with 2,944 satellites ranks first and China with 499 satellites is second.[7] Satellites are not only used for purposes such as communication, navigation, and weather conditions. States obtain intelligence through satellites, develop an early warning system against threats, take countermeasures by blocking communication signals, and gain the ability to perform many other operations.

In the 21st century, it is possible to say that it is essential for a state to carry out space studies in order to strengthen its hand in politics, economy, trade, defense, and many other areas imaginable. As Lyndon B. Johnson, who served as President of the United States from 1963 to 1969, said “Dominating space can control the earth’s climate, create droughts and floods, change tides and sea levels, shift gulf currents, and freeze temperate regions.” As he points out in his statement space-based applications contain greater effects than their effects on daily life.

As a result, the USA and China continue their space studies with great effort in order to gain superiority over each other. It is still early to say that the space studies of these two states are the harbinger of war. However, it should not be forgotten that; Regardless of the time of peace or war, the dynamics of the 21st century require states to take place in space. Therefore, space will continue to be one of the areas where competition between the USA and China takes place.

[1] Bruce W. MacDonald, “China, Space Weapons, and U.S. Security”, Council Special Report, 38, 2008, pg. 3.

[2] MacDonald, op.cit., pg. 4.

[3] Matthew Daniels, The History and Future of Us–China Competition and Cooperation in Space, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore 2020, pg. 3.

[4] “US General Warns China Biggest Threat in Space”, Voice of America,, (Date of Accession: 23.02.2023).

[5] “China’s Military Strategy”, Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China,, (Date of Accession: 23.02.2023).

[6] “US Space Command Recognizes Establishment”, U.S. Space Command Public Affairs,, (Date of Accession: 23.02.2023).

[7] “Number of Satellites In Orbit By Major Country”, Statista,, (Date of Accession: 23.02.2023).

Neslihan TOPCU
Neslihan Topcu, 2017 yılında Adnan Menderes Üniversitesi Siyaset Bilimi ve Kamu Yönetimi bölümünden mezun olmuş ve ardından aynı üniversitenin Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda yüksek lisans eğitimine başlamıştır. Yüksek lisans derecesini elde ettiği “Çin’in Enerji Güvenliği Politikaları” başlıklı tezi, 2020 yılında kitap olarak da yayınlanmıştır. 2016 senesinde Litvanya’daki Kazimieras Simonavičius Üniversitesi’nde ve 2019 yılında da Portekiz’deki Minho Üniversitesi’nde eğitim alan Topçu, halihazırda Selçuk Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda doktora eğitimine devam etmektedir. Asya Pasifik, enerji güvenliği ve devletlerin uzay politikalarıyla ilgili çalışmaları çeşitli dergilerde ve kitaplarda yayınlanmış olan Topçu, iyi derecede İngilizce ve orta seviyede İspanyolca bilmektedir.