China’s mid-December abduction of a US Navy unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) as the vessel was returning to its mothership after a scientific excursion showed that China is willing to play hardball with US hardware. In previous confrontations, China took custody of an EP-3 reconnaissance plane and its crew in 2001, and has harassed multiple unarmed US Navy survey ships with dangerous maneuvers. As part of its “peaceful rise”, China has focused on gaining ground in new domains of strategic interest outside of its traditional focus. As a result, it has adopted assertive and asymmetric strategic postures in the maritime, cyber, and space domains.
Lessons that China learns in one domain tend to find their way into others. In June 2016, China launched Aolong-1, the first of a planned series of satellites equipped with a robotic manipulator, purportedly for the purpose of capturing and de-orbiting space debris. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy destroyer that picked up the UUV in the South China Sea is tasked with and equipped for submarine recovery operations, a similarly benign mission with apparent dual-use utility. Being robotic, the UUV made for an easier, less risky, target. China learned quickly after the EP-3 incident that holding US personnel hostage for however long a period had a highly escalatory effect and was a public relations liability. A drone, though, is simply hardware, sending the desired message to the United States—and to South China Sea claimant nations—without the wetware liability.
China demonstrating its willingness to assert itself in contested domains, using tools it has developed for peaceful uses, means its assets in orbit must receive renewed scrutiny. China’s predominant doctrine for space remains a theory of “space deterrence,” its aim to hold an adversary’s space assets at risk for asymmetric advantage. What better way to send a deterrent message in space than by grabbing a high-value satellite for some period of time, potentially under the pretext of “safety of flight,” similar to the justification used by the PLA Navy in the South China Sea?