On December 20, 2019, the United States founded a new service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the U.S. Space Force (USSF). The expansion of U.S. military force into outer space created little fanfare in the media, save for social media mockery of the new branch’s camouflage uniform and an official Bible that will be used in the swearing-in of all USSF commanders. Perhaps the reason the creation of the USSF sparked so little public interest is that, currently, outer space is more interesting in the context of science fiction; science non-fiction is far less sensational. Yet the creation of the USSF should give us all pause, because it does indeed have a very specific and threatening purpose: to counter the burgeoning Chinese presence in space, poised to be a crucial part of a supposedly imminent U.S.-Chinese Cold War.
In December 2015, the People’s Republic of China created the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), of which a key component is the Space System Department, with authority over China’s military space-related assets. Earlier that year, the Chinese government had released an official document on military strategy that stated: “Outer space has become a commanding height in international strategic competition. Countries concerned are developing their space forces and instruments, and the first signs of weaponization of outer space have appeared.” On December 27, 2019, China successfully launched its Long March 5 rocket (capable of sending up to 25 tons of payload into low orbit) and plans to launch a Mars probe sometime in 2020. Although China does not rival the U.S. as a superpower, the parallels between this mounting competition and the historical “Space Race” between the U.S. and the Soviet seem obvious. Just as Moscow then then, Beijing is rapidly reforming and evolving its military capabilities, as both U.S. political parties have authorized huge increases in defense spending in the name of “national security.” This time, however, the race is to be the first nation to put human beings on Mars or to establish low-orbit space stations.
Yet the idea that there is a new “Space Race” brewing rests on the presumption that the relationship between the U.S. and China resembles (or will resemble) that between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Certainly, there are “experts” who believe this must be the case. Speaking at a forum hosted by the influential Aspen Institute think tank in July 2019, John Rood, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said China was “the one country… with the ability to change our way of life in the United States, and change the global order, for good or ill.” Chris Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, warned about the designs Beijing had on the South China Sea. Presumably Brose did not address what right the U.S. had to designs on the South China Sea, where the U.S. military has strong land, air, and naval presences in the Philippines and Singapore. The U.S. has enjoyed a hegemonic position in Asia for a long time, having acquired the islands of the Philippines and Guam in 1898 from the Spanish Empire after the Spanish-American War. After the brief interruption of the war with Japan in the 1940s, the U.S. commanded unrivaled control over the region. The U.S. still has around 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea and around 50,000 in Japan. Also headquartered in Japan is the U.S. 7th Fleet, the largest of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, with 60-70 ships, 300 aircraft, and 40,000 soldiers protecting U.S. interests.
Concern over the threat of China to U.S. control of Asia is nothing new in the Beltway. An element of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy was the “pivot to Asia,” which included the 2010 adoption of the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) doctrine, centered on coordinating the Navy and Air Force in a possible violent confrontation with China. Meanwhile, the Obama administration pursued a trade deal that became known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), framing it as an effort to reduce Chinese influence in Asia and advance the economic status of the U.S. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, he abandoned the TPP but resumed a hostile position to China, starting a prolonged trade war, which Trump recently settled to avoid further humiliation. Besides creating the USSF to counter the PLASSF’s “space warfare” program, Trump’s $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act reinforced close security ties with Taiwan and banned government agencies and their contractors from using equipment sold by Huawei, a telecom company with connections to the Chinese government. It is worth remembering that in 2013 NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of PRISM, an NSA program where U.S. telecom companies Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others shared private Internet communications with the government. These companies were obviously never sanctioned, since the U.S. government does not object so surveillance of its citizens, but rather encourages it. What cannot be permitted is foreign governments accessing sensitive information about the U.S. government, which has perfected global espionage. An increasing amount of U.S. military action abroad takes the form of special forces raids, drone strikes, and proxy conflicts to supplement its overt military force.
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. policy of hostile relations toward the Soviet Union were rationalized according to a school of international studies known as realism. The common thread running through realism and its variations is that states act according to self-interest, seeking to maximize their advantages by any means possible. Realists differ over whether this mentality is human nature or the default state of anarchy that exists in the absence of a higher power. In the end, the outcome is the same: competing states must place ideals secondary to the choices necessary for hegemony or survival. By this logic, the U.S. government spent millions of dollars constructing the largest, most sophisticated military in world history, backed up by enough nuclear weapons to end life on the entire planet. There were also countless other expenditures related to winning the Cold War, from cultural propaganda to placing a man on the lunar surface.
The irony of this stance was that the bombastic signals these actions sent to the Soviet Union only spread anti-U.S. sentiment around the world. Lacking the historical context, many people inside the U.S. did not realize it was filling the role of imperial powers when their government intervened in the former French colony of Vietnam, or on the side of white supremacist governments in apartheid South Africa and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). While claiming to be a beacon of liberty and democracy, the U.S. government allied with some of the most despicable, repressive regimes in the world. The 1960 Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro were initially more nationalist in character than Marxist, but since the U.S. had supported the harsh Batista dictatorship, the Soviet Union made a natural ally. Likewise, guerilla armies who fought white-minority governments in southern Africa gravitated to Moscow less out of a passion for Marx and Lenin than the need for weapons and resources to fight right-wing white supremacist states with ties to the U.S. This is not to say ideology was meaningless; but the communist case for human liberation and ending exploitation resonated (with good reason) among the poor and oppressed of the U.S. world order. To this day, the still extant socialist states and most potent communist parties are outside the capitalist powers, in the periphery of the international political, economic, and cultural systems.
In 1992, the academic Alexander Wendt published an article titled “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” Wendt posited realism was wrong because it assumes states must act according to self-interest. Instead, realism was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; by investing so much in competing with other states, a state is naturally going to pursue conflict, especially when it enjoys superiority. The Cold War was not a natural, inevitable battle between two rival powers, but the result of policy choices that pushed both sides to conflict. As Wendt put it, “anarchy is what states make of it.” In other words, in the absence of a sovereign above them, states need not prepare for imminent war; in fact, by preparing for war, they are making war more likely. It is entirely possible for states to eschew the sort of force build-up and psychological warfare that characterized the Cold War at its darkest moments. At the very least, rival states could at least agree to a amicable agreement based on good will.
The reality that there was no inherent animus between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was on clear display during the extended period of détente in the 1960s and 1970s. Former anti-communist firebrand Richard Nixon sought a “peaceful coexistence” with Moscow while also thawing U.S. relations with Mao’s China. When Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power in the early 1980s, however, it once again became conventional wisdom there could be no cooperation or even conciliation with the Soviet Union. U.S. conservatives like to give credit to Reagan for “winning” the Cold War, but this is a myth. If anything, Reagan’s bellicose saber-rattling and military build-up strengthened Soviet hardliners who were being challenged by liberalizing reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev. It was only when Gorbachev implemented his reforms that the Soviet Union imploded, as the release of public frustration ended party rule. Ultimately, for all its millions in defense spending, the U.S. did not need to fire a shot to attain worldwide supremacy. The Soviet Union, having bankrupted itself trying to compete with the U.S. and its allies, destroyed itself from within, its legitimacy withering away in the eyes of its citizens.
It is therefore not a given that the U.S. needs to be a in a “space race” with China or preparing to defeat China in the South China Sea, or engage in any other behavior that positions China as an enemy or a rival. In fact, if anything, China is much more an ally of the U.S. than the Soviet Union ever was. Firstly, since the economic reforms of the late 1970s, China has jumped into its subordinate role in the global capitalist economy, adopting an export-oriented market trade policy, encouraging foreign investment, and providing cheap labor to manufacturing companies in the metropole countries. Remarkably, in its trade war with the U.S., “communist” China condemned protectionism and touted unrestricted free trade and globalization as desirable! To fuel its industrialization (as well as fill the rainy-day funds of party elites), China needs access to global markets, raw commodities, and the frontier technology of Silicon Valley. Unlike China, the Soviet Union had numerous allies and trading partners post-WWII so that it could operate separate from the capitalist powers, or at least to a much less degree than contemporary China. The Soviet Union failed to export goods outside Eastern Europe (the most successful export perhaps being the AK-47), whereas any random object sold in the U.S. likely bears the imprinting “Made in China.” At least as far as the government is concerned, China seems more inclined to maintain the status quo, reap the profits of the moment, and invest in development for the future. The idea that it is about to upturn the global order, much less engage in “space warfare,” is ridiculous, as China would lose.
The second reason China is unlike the Soviet Union is in their own promotion of communism, or at least in its partners “buying in” to certain systems, institutions, and policies. Soviet foreign policy revolved around the Communist International, which coordinated with communist parties in different countries to align themselves with Moscow. Military and economic aid were contingent on accepting a subordinate position to Soviet policy. The U.S. did much the same by attaching structural adjustment packages (containing neoliberal policy prescriptions and “good governance” frameworks) to financial assistance to underdeveloped countries via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Washington also puts immense value on its bases in foreign countries, even when locals denounce their presence. China, however, attaches few (if any) conditionalities to its aid. It has invested highly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but it is not funding guerilla movements or expecting governments to declare themselves communist. Instead, China is pursuing a foreign policy of “harmoniousness,” coexistence instead of competitiveness. If the Soviet Union was all about centering its ideological differences with the U.S., then contemporary China is setting aside ideological differences and concentrating 0n “win-win” results. It is the U.S. government that is being doctrinaire in its belief that there can only be one global superpower, and that it is the will of some higher power it be the United States.
Bumper stickers that read “Visualize World Peace” can sometimes be seen on U.S. roads, but it is time for people to visualize war in space. That is the direction we are heading unless it is understood that this collision course with China is happening, and that it is unnecessary. Rather than seeking to maintain unipolar U.S. hegemony from ocean to ocean, from cyberspace to outer space, we ourselves should become oriented to harmony rather than conflict. The U.S. and the planet at large barely survived one decades-long Cold War where humanity lived in the shadow of nuclear winter. We may well return to that shade if we cannot choose cooperation over conflict, peace over war.