Since China’s human space program launched in 1992 after its exclusion from the International Space Station (ISS), the program has made great strides in space. As China’s influence in space and on Earth expands, the United States has only grown warier of the country, citing national security concerns. Because space technologies can be used for both civilian and military purposes, the US is suspicious as to whether China’s activities in space are grounded in the spirit of international cooperation or aim to militarize space technologies to boost its own national security.

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Central Military Commission officially launched san zhong zhanfa (三種戰法) or “the Three Warfares” in its 2003 edition of the Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army. This three-pronged approach to information warfare aims to influence the PRC’s opponents. Importantly, each component is not mutually exclusive; rather, they work in tandem to further China’s ambitious development goals.

China’s use of the “Three Warfares” strategy has now extended into space. The strategy has proved quite successful so far, however, it faces opposition from the US and others. If China can use the strategy to gain the upper hand in the scramble for space, it could have huge impacts on the direction in which space exploration, technology, and military procedures go overall.

Media maneuvering: rising star China coming head-to-head with aging star U.S.

The first prong of the “Three Warfares” approach relies on the strategic use of media outlets to sway domestic and international opinion on China. This component has become critical in the digital age given how quickly and easily information can be shared online.

Chinese and Western media representations of China’s space industry – most notably, those relating to the Chinese-Russian-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which aims to advance lunar exploration, the Tiangong or China Space Station (CSS), and its budding Mars mission – portray the country as a rising space power and a nation committed to putting humanity first. Like the ISS, – a space station that has hosted astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world – both the ILRS and CSS aim to promote diplomatic ties between countries, along with the peaceful use of outer space. The stations are also described as trying to spur innovation in space to benefit humanity.

Media outlets have also criticized US attempts to maintain its superiority in space, fuelling international displeasure of US leadership as support grows for China. Despite China’s exclusion from the ISS since the 1990s, the US’ unwillingness to cooperate with China has only recently gained media attention in light of China’s accomplishments in space and the US’ increasingly aggressive anti-China stance. An example of American hostility can be found in the 2020 Artemis Accords, an agreement spearheaded by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration that seeks to colonize and claim sovereignty over the moon. The Accords have generated international disapproval due to the agreement’s US-centric approach and similarities with the 18th-century enclosure movement, where Great Britain privatized common land to benefit the wealthy.

Strategic psychology: favourable perceptions of China in the international community

The second prong is rooted in psychology and involves the strategic use of China’s military, diplomatic, economic, and cultural power to encourage conformity with the PRC’s aims.

Due to China’s rapidly growing space power, this former underdog has become an unofficial leader in space activities and governance, enhancing the PRC’s credibility in security discussions. Furthermore, China-Russia cooperation in space has led to speculation that the two may join forces to challenge American superiority in space, leading to a space war. Concerns over military action or at the very least, another cold war, heightened in 2007 following China’s successful anti-satellite test.

According to Michael Listner, attorney and founder of space think-tank and consultation firm Space Law and Policy Solutions, this joint cooperation has also led some, including American policymakers and academics, to have increasingly optimistic views of China and Russia’s intentions in space. This is due to the perception that China and Russia are interested in promoting humanity as a whole, rather than their own national interests.

Challenging existing legal structures: the creation of new Chinese-Russian cooperative agreements

The third prong involves leveraging existing legal systems to pressure opponents and maximize China’s advantage under international law.

Legal maneuvering in space is rooted in China and Russia’s dissatisfaction with US efforts to maintain its dominance in space. One example of this can be found in China and Russia’s efforts to bypass US-backed legal structures in outer space governance, most notably, the Artemis Accords. Perhaps drawing from concerns that the Accords largely cater to US interests, only twelve countries have signed on to the agreement as of June 2021. By contrast, each of the fifteen governments involved in the ISS has signed on to the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement, which governs the space project. Several countries with established space agencies and a history of collaboration with the U.S., including Germany, France, India, and Russia, are absent

In China and Russia’s eyes, the current version of the agreement represents a power grab by the US and its allies, as evidenced by its unwillingness to cooperate with the China National Space Administration and the lack of African and South American partners. According to Listner, China and Russia are taking advantage of this hesitancy by devising their own cooperative agreements with reluctant states, challenging US legal supremacy in space. If successful, these efforts could not only weaken the US’ role in space governance but also that of existing agreements structurally similar to the Accords, along with future legal structures.

Making way for a new authority in space?

Elevated tensions between China and Russia and the U.S. have led some to anticipate a space race between the two parties. Given the military potential of space technologies and the growing importance of information warfare and cybersecurity, this is a reasonable concern to have. Technology and media play a central role in today’s world and have the potential to upend the power and dominance the West has enjoyed for decades by influencing the international community’s perception of China and the US. Resulting from this changing psychology, long-standing legal structures, which have largely catered to Western interests, may be forced to make way for Chinese and Russian perspectives. As demonstrated, China’s Three Warfares strategy informs its activities in space. Thus, this lens should be used when contemplating how China is challenging American space power.