An old adage in military circles is that taking the high ground gives one side an obvious advantage over an adversary. When it comes to space, that seems to be as true as it is on Earth.
In a week that has China’s President Xi Jinping presiding over the country’s national security commission, he reportedly told air force officers that he wants the People’s Liberation Army to have a more robust space role. See the Reuters story: China’s President Xi urges greater military use of space
Both China and the U.S. know the strategic value of space, even if it has not been militarized in the conventional understanding of the word. Armed satellites do not square off against one another in a warlike manner, but no modern military can fight as it wants to without reliable space-based communications and surveillance.
To that end, the U.S. military will continue to depend on space assets and reliable space access. Yet this is becoming more complicated, as the reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. spy satellites has demonstrated. Any nation that wants to preserve its edge needs to be mindful of how it gets its assets into space. Satellites can make easy targets, and it must be expected that in a conflict that their rapid replacement will crucial.
For China, its space programs are also a critical part of its national narrative of growth, stability and prosperity in the 21st Century. Space access for China also represents a potential economic advantage. It could become a political and legal trap, however, if China pushes too far into the militarization of its space programs beyond accepted norms.
At the same time, President Xi also has his hands full with one of his signature initiatives: combating corruption within the Communist Party, as well as within the PLA. One recently busted top general had illicitly reaped billions of dollars and amassed a collection of subterranean booty secreted beneath his home, according to a Voice of America report.
When it comes to a campaign against corruption, Xi has shown he understands the value of the moral high ground as he tries to check the kind of official behavior that jeopardizes the Party’s leadership and relevance. As Xi charts a path forward for the China in space, it is worth considering the moral high ground there as well.
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