Japan and China Military Space Programs

                                              by Philippe Valdois

Space plays a critical role in information gathering and communications. Space programs not only offer possibilities for scientific and other forms of cooperation but also could in addition, as history have revealed, become a catalyst for tremendous improvements in the relations between various countries. They also present risks, in particular weaponing of space and a possible new arm race. I will try here to offer a subjective analysis, focusing on the identification of various risks and offering some suggestions for improvement, looking at history, realities and perception, and the character of various actors implicated in decision-making.

It is not my purpose here to list all the landmarks and accomplishments of China and Japan in that field over the past 50 years or so. However, to start on a positive note, it should be noted that both countries have played a leadership role in recent years promoting regional cooperation, for example with the establishment in 1993 by Japan of the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum, APRSAF, the “Sentinel-Asia (Asian supervisors)” project in 2006 and the Space Application for Environment (SAFE) project in 2008. In China, we should mention the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) inaugurated in 2005, with a growing number of cooperation projects http://www.apsco.int/program.asp  . Those programs can be seen as similar to the European Space Agency efforts to involve smaller countries which could not afford it by themselves, offering them the possibility to participate in large scale programs and scientific experiments. I had a chance to attend the First International Space Exploration Symposium in Japan, in October 2012 and chat with Dr. Alain Dupas who talked about the pooling of resources http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/26535690 – Dr. Dupas presentation starts at 1:20:10). It was an opportunity to see how European space programs differed from US ones.

Those major initiatives put those countries at the center of any discussion on the future of space programs in the region, although we should not forget the role played by the U.S. as major partner of Japan and as a catalyst of many decisions taken by Japan.

To write this essay, I have found James Clay Moltz’s Asia’s Space Race, National Motivations, Regional rivalries and International Risk,  (Columbia University Press, 2012,) extremely valuable to understand the history and context of national space programs in the region, including their military, scientific and commercial aspects.

Political changes in Japan
Many events are shaping new policies regarding space efforts in Asia, as we enter the last trimester of 2014.

“Normalcy” has been one word associated by the medias with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision for his country and interpreted in part by his government as a shift towards stronger defense capabilities. This includes Japan’s space program.

In August 2014, news came out that Japan was planning to launch a military space force to protect communications and reconnaissance satellites from debris orbiting the Earth. Personnel from the Air Self-Defense Force would acquire radar and telescope facilities to monitor space debris. Until 2008, Japan space mandate excluded military space activities and the country relied heavily on information shared by the US, but the attention became focused on space and national security with North Korea’s launch of a Taepodong 1 rocket in 1998 over the Japanese Archipelago.

In 1969, the National Space Development Agency was created to develop civil space activities and to represent Japan in its interaction with foreign space agencies, but Japan started receiving liquid-fuel rocket technology from the United States, and on the same year, the Parliament, fearing this technology could be used to develop ballistic missiles, adopted a resolution requiring that the space program be conducted only for civilian purposes.

To comply with the 1969 resolution the construction of a multipurpose satellite for Earth-observation operated by civilians, but able to be used for military purposes, was suggested and in March 2003, the first two of a series of satellites to constitute the Information Gathering Satellite (IGS) were launched.

In October 2003, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi merged the Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science (ISAS) with NASDA (National Space Development Agency) into the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) but following some technical failures a push for more reforms was to take place with the so-called Kawamura initiative. The Liberal Democratic Party thought too much emphasis had been put on scientific programs and not enough on user-oriented space applications. It also wanted to streamline the administration and free the country from the limitations of the 1969 resolution. Thus, in May 2008 the Diet adopted the Basic Space Law, allowing military uses of space.

In Chapter 2 Section 4 Outer Space and Security of its White Paper: Defense of Japan 2014 http://www.mod.go.jp/e/publ/w_paper/2014.html Japan Ministry of Defense mentions China only-as a country, by name-in section 1 dedicated to its own program, referring to the January 2007 Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test. It mentions the same test in section 4 (China) where it also says “the country is developing equipment that interferes with satellites capable of using lasers”.

Japan considers as key threats North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but also Chinese growing military activities in South and East China seas. Improving its reconnaissance capability is vital. Japan is also keen on developing its missile defense system and needs reliable systems to communicate with its ships and troops deployed overseas (on UN missions, for example).

Already, after the failed missile test by North Korea in April 2009, voices were heard calling for a better cooperation with the United States against any threat to either country. Since any preventive action would include spy satellites, we might see how space policy might have been a factor in the Abe government’s decision to call for a different interpretation of the Constitution legalizing the right to collective self-defense and the nomination of Akinori Eto as Minister of Defense and Minister in charge of Security Legislation in early September 2014.

On the non-military side, Japan has since 2006 worked on a regional disaster-management system called Sentinel Asia, mentioned in the introduction. The Joint Project team included participants from Australia, Bangladesh, South Korea, People’s Republic of China, etc. JAXA is seen as being encouraged to play a somewhat similar role to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) as part of a soft-power strategy, with launch access, satellites and training being provided to Asian countries as Official Development Aid.

On the military side, a similar strategy has been adopted, in particular through cooperation with the United States but also with India, South Korea and other Pacific countries. This was also the conclusion of James Clay Moltz. His Asia’s Space Race, National Motivations, Regional rivalries and International Risk was published two years ago, but his analysis was recently confirmed on August 31st, 2014, as a result of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit to Japan, with the elevation of bilateral ties to Special Strategic Partnership and the removal of six of India’s space and defense-related entities from its negative list known as Foreign End User List (see Asian Tribune, “We will help you”, Abe tells Modi, ties elevated to Special Strategic Partnership, Malladi Rama Rao, New Delhi, 02 September 2014) http://www.asiantribune.com/node/85321

There is a lack of transparency in certain aspects of the programs of both China, and Japan, which has failed in the past to list the orbital parameters of some of its IGS satellites, in violation of a UN Convention, arguing that other countries did the same. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2007/06/15/national/japans-spy-satellites-are-an-open-secret/#.VAwc9kum3rA

This did not later prevent Japan in 2007, when Shinzo Abe, was first in power, to be the only country to categorize the Chinese anti-satellite test (ASAT) as a “violation” of Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty.

China, the new space power

Beijing has often been criticized for its lack of transparency. One example was in January 2007 when the kinetic ASAT test we just mentioned was followed by a denial from China’s Foreign Ministry, then by attempts to justify what amounted to a radical shift from the policy of opposing weapons in space, thus damaging China’s reputation in the United Nations. I see many reasons to such criticism. Some are legitimate, and some have to do with perception. For example, on one hand, the public sees or imagines power in China as being highly centralized and authoritarian, but on the other hand, most Western specialists see it as fragmented with different institutions vying for control of a particular program. As I previously mentioned I will not paint a detailed history of China’s space programs but the list of the various entities involved show this pattern has existed for decades.

The difficulty to know who controls what and how it will affect the direction of space decision-making makes in fact other regional powers uneasy. The decision in 1993 to create the China National Space Administration (CNSA), presented as the equivalent of the NASA, while in fact most space research, production, etc., was the realm of the defense industry, was not conducive to trust. The creation of the powerful China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) came later in 1999 and clarified the situation. With its myriads of subordinate entities it could be seen as a group of subcontractors, like those working with other space agencies like NASA, but here under the control of the State. But the fragmentation of power in addition to leaving too much space for speculations has also been cause for legitimate concern. In April 2006 CNSA Vice Administrator Luo Ge visited the United States but when NASA Administrator Michael Griffin reciprocated he was denied access to the flight operations center and other facilities he wished to visit. Since these were military controlled, the refusal might have been the product of an internal dispute between the NCSA and the People Liberation Army (PLA).

The emergence of China as a military space actor is relatively recent since it started in the 1990s, when China quickly came to understand the importance of advance reconnaissance and communications satellites in military operations, in particular when looking at how modern, large scale military operations were conducted during the Gulf War. It is however too early to consider China as really engaged in an arm race. The U.S. greatly dominates the space scene in terms of number of satellites and experience and this dominance makes also the US fear that this dominance makes them particularly vulnerable, encouraging them to always stay one step ahead.

It is true that the US and Japan relying more on space-base technologies should have more to loose than China if a tit-for-tat situation involving the mutual disabling of satellites was to happen, but the lack of a major military ally and the sheer number of military assets deployed by the U.S. would precipitate a defeat for China. Things could change however if China developed the necessary technology to make possible the deployment of a great number of micro-satellites. Also, China now has to deal with the determination of countries like India to develop military space operations, the launch by Japan of a military space force, and the recent partnership agreement between Japan and India. I do not see improved Chinese militaries capacities as enough to force the U.S. and its allies to envision a “space Pearl Harbor” against the United States, the slowing down of the Chinese economic growth and the need to invest in domestic infrastructure would preclude it. A bloated military budget with strategic challenges developing in Europe and in the Middle East for the U.S.; the financial aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the enormous debt in Japan; these are factors putting those countries in a situation where a new arm race would be financially catastrophic and conducive to more mistrust.  I will come back later on the origin, significance and implications of this “space Peal Harbor quote.

We already mentioned transparency. Another problem is the reluctance on the part of China to expose its scientific or technological shortcomings in some particular fields. When it should be proud of its achievements in human spaceflight, China will go to great lengths to dissimulate failures. It is a cultural problem and, as with other defense matters, it leaves the observer scratching his head, wondering if there are not military secrets dissimulated behind this wall of silence and assuming the worst-case scenario. To learn about one’s own shortcomings and improve them necessitates a measure of realism, which in this particular case necessitates in turn the ability to expose those shortcomings and candidly ask for support. Again, history has shown China benefiting from such approach. In fact at the JAXA Tokyo symposium I mentioned in the introduction, the Secretary General of the International Academy of Astronautics IAA – in Chinese said that China had unfortunately declined an invitation, to what was to be a successful event with informal exchanges between major industry players, adding China would always be welcomed!

However, as we have seen with Japan and its Sentinel Asia project, China has also a history of collaborating with other countries’ space agencies, like NASA from 1980s to the late 1990s, with ESA since the late 1980s, with Russia, starting in 1989 and in the 1950s with the Soviet Union, and with countries in the developing world. In fact, if China relied heavily on the Soviet Union in the 1950s for its missiles technology, it greatly benefited and learned from the exchanges with the United States following the Richard Nixon trip to China in 1972.

Twenty years later, two Chinese astronauts were to fly aboard the U.S. space shuttle. This cooperation encouraged in fact China to integrate the world space community, with 1988 being a turning point, when President Reagan allowed U.S.-made satellites to be launched on Chinese rockets and China joined two important space related international conventions. Those events, when compared to what followed later at the end of the 1990s, show the benefit of exchanges for maintaining peace and goodwill. They also help us understand how political changes in the United States in particular helped destroy this goodwill.

The Clinton administration started restricting space technology exchanges and years of mistrust followed, fueled by strong military and conservative politicians both in the U.S. and in China. Even after the November 2009 summit meeting in Beijing of U.S. President Obama with President Hu Jintao, which concluded with a joint statement including a call for expanding discussions on space science cooperation, scientific cooperation was halted by Republican Representative Frank Wolf http://news.sciencemag.org/technology/2011/04/spending-bill-prohibits-u.s.-china-collaborations

However, cooperation continued and is still growing with other countries, in particular since the 1980s with European countries. This might be a reason why China decided to adopt European instead of U.S. Technology for its mobile phone network!

Another conservative “villain” in the story would be Donald Rumsfeld. I used previously his own words: “Space Pearl Harbor”, to describe what amounted to a call for a new arm race. I would make mine the conclusions of Michael Krepon in his article Lost in Space: the Misguided Drive Toward Antisatellite Weapons, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2001 http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/57025/michael-krepon/lost-in-space-the-misguided-drive-toward-antisatellite-weapons

In addition, we sometimes hear about China’ plans to build its own space station and many in the public see this as a non-cooperative attitude on the part of Beijing, but what few people in the public recognize is that as a result of the publication of the controversial Cox Report in May 1999 http://www.house.gov/coxreport/ . China was denied access to the ISS.

All the previous events illustrate my point, regarding the toxicity of using as reference the past to deal with modern challenges. On the opposite, Deng Xiaoping, who studied and worked in France where he also met Zhou Enlai, another advocate for peaceful coexistence with the West who initiated some of Deng Xiaoping reforms, comes out as a very different type of leader whose policies for and his longing of promoting peace, cooperation, and prosperity helped raise the standard of living of hundred of millions of Chinese, even if we take into account a parallel rise in revenue inequalities. It is worth mentioning he was an architect of the emergence of China as a major space player.

Space applications and in particular communication satellites are also vital in China for maintaining domestic order. They not only help broadcast information but also authorize the transfer of data for the printing of national newspapers for example. In addition, the human spaceflight program and the recent lunar landing are showcasing to the Chinese people the capacity of the Communist Party to put China in a central position on the world stage and the technological benefits space programs under its direction can bring to them.

In strategic terms China, as we have seen, has no major ally at a time when alliances are developing in the region. It is not only facing Japan and India, but also the possibility of a conflict, which might involve the U.S., not only as a result of the future reinterpretation of Japan Constitution and the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, but also over Taiwan and disputed islands in South and East China seas. This in turn puts China on the defensive, fueling the need for Beijing to build a competitive hedge but more importantly to become an active participant and promoter of international treaties. I think positive results in terms of cooperation can only be obtained if the secrecy and reluctance on the part of the PLA to engage in military-to-military discussions are but the product of uncertainty and unpreparedness and are not rooted in mistrust going back maybe to the Opium Wars and a time that no man alive now has known. Even if mistrust has been born from events having happened less than a century ago, as was the case when a great scientist, Dr. Qian Xuesen, was deported by the United States in 1955 (see The Two Lives of Qian Xuesen by Evan Osnos, in The New Yorker, November 3, 2009 http://www.newyorker.com/news/evan-osnos/the-two-lives-of-qian-xuesen the page needs to be turned. Let us remember that this event took place in the McCarthy-era, a time when the press and the public blindly followed a one-man crusade before, a few short years later, making their mea culpa. Times like this happen in history when small men engaged in a personal crusade would be later forgotten if not for their association with controversial reports or a series of appearances in the media. Leaders should not follow this track.

The Obama administration has shown a willingness to engage in a fruitful dialogue as when the U.S. invited four ships from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to the Rim of the Pacific 2014 exercise in July 2014 http://news.usni.org/2014/07/02/china-invited-back-future-rimpac-exercises this should be one more reason for Asia-Pacific countries to cooperate more on space programs. Hurdles coming from individual hardline politicians will be removed over the years and opportunities should be used anytime they happen. The history of Chinese space program demonstrates it and also the fact that the nationalist flavor of success always gave place to pride in humanity’s accomplishments in general, when human and technological success is attained in space.

Another way to improve the dialogue, especially since as we have seen there is a thin line between civil and military space programs, is to focus on civil space cooperation between NASA, JAXA and NCSA. It would help build confidence on both sides.

It is also vital to educate the public regarding the complexity of the issues related to the economic, political and military components of space programs in Asia. Traditional geostrategic thinking, apart from dealing with ground bases, for example, shows its obsolescence when dealing with a borderless tridimensional environment such as space and might in fact exacerbate mistrust and tensions.

Finally, The question of debris in space is a major problem, which has to be addressed through international cooperation since it is a common threat. But this threat can also be used as a justification for greater monitoring of foreign satellites opening the way to the development of more ASTs.

Security in space, be it against debris or weapons, will be a vital interest for the more than 60 countries having satellites deployed in space, but it should not be a reason for pushing for militarization of space. However, the fact that those weapons can now be used or discussed in a non-military context, will assure their continuous development and will contribute to the blurring between commercial and military use of space, and if space race there is, we should be on the lookout for keywords such as “debris” and “microsatellites” since they will also play a growing dual purpose, along with the development of non-kinetic AST such as lasers.

Space is an open space without borders, which enables us to view Earth as a shared system. This provides us with an opportunity to change the dynamics in the Asian region and engage into or multiply discussions over various topics, including disaster prevention and environmental monitoring. The ESA offers good examples of multidisciplinary cooperation.

We have seen a growing interdependency since the end of the Cold War between Russia and various countries including the United States for the supply of vehicles to transport its astronauts to the ISS, but also of rocket components. In return, Russia is dependent on those exportations. It is even true for Ukrainian commercial rockets that heavily depend on Russian components.

For all these reasons, space cooperation might not only be a dream but also a necessity, and the beginning of a real Asian community might also well be the indirect product of space cooperation.