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09 March 2021

New space race risks conflict between China and the West

Miscommunication and miscalculations between the US and China in the ‘Space Race’ could have grave consequences for the world, a new policy paper from the Lau China Institute at King's College London outlines warns.

Chinese rocket launch vehicles

'China's space programme: A rising star, a rising challenge' charts China's growth as a global leader in space and calls for a greater understanding of China and its ambitions in space to avoid conflict.

Unlike other conflict areas, the world has failed to sign agreements on safe space management. As the US and UK are currently dependent on space infrastructure, hostile powers would gain from pre-emptive strikes on their satellites and space infrastructure. This short to medium term ‘vulnerability gap' may lead to a miscalculation during heightened tensions over, for example, Taiwan.

Report researcher Dr Mark Hilborne, Lecturer, Defence Studies Department and in War Studies Online at King’s, warns this failure to develop rules for space has led to an increased risk of miscalculation or miscommunication.

“The UK must work with other countries to build consensus as to the safe management of space,” Dr Hilborne said.

The UK is now a leading nation in the space economy and space technology. If the UK wishes to maintain this success, it must develop an understanding and an international agreement on making space free from conflict. This includes the development of clear lines of communications and understanding between the West and China.

Dr Mark Hilborne

The report also states how China’s space programme has seen the merging of civil and state capacity; and this has led to a lack of clarity as to the objectives of China's civilian programme.

The paper written by Dr Hilborne forms part of the Lau Policy Series 2020/21.

In this story

Mark Hilborne

Lecturer, Defence Studies Department and in War Studies Online