Great Power Competition Reaches the Depths of Space

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga after the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee on March 16, 2021. Photo: The YomiuriShimbun via AFP/ Masanori Genko

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” — John. F. Kennedy

As a show of technological superiority, the Cold War-induced Space Race brought about immense technological advancements. Fast forward six decades and the old mid-twentieth century space programs would be baffled by the extent of progress made in the space industry today. Led by Elon Musk, the world watched in awe as SpaceX changed the game of space travel, becoming the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). With many private space organizations throwing their hats into the ring, the national posture on space activity has become increasingly revitalized, echoing similar sentiments of excitement and competition seen previously. The era of great power competition seen during the initial Space Race has yet to dissipate since the end of the Cold War, only further perpetuating between hegemon contenders: the United States, China, and Russia.

“Great power competition” has moved from an arcane term to an ever increasing nexus of national security focus. While the 2018 National Defense Strategy has dubbed it as a “reemergence of long-term strategic competition,” this jockeying for power has always been present and will continue to evolve within our international sphere. Revisionist powers have constantly threatened the existing international order since its inconception following the Second World War. This is exhibited through varying realms of nuclear, economic, and technological competition, as countries seek to innovate and project global influence.

Much in line with these attitudes, NASA has even jumped on the bandwagon, seeking to land the first woman on the moon in 2024, following a decade without any human-led space missions. The United States is not the only traditional player seeking to reinvigorate its space program. China’s space program is constantly evolving, recently with the addition of a Russian partnership on an International Lunar Research Station, resembling America’s Artemis moon program. As great power competition turns to space, Russia’s cooperation with China, rather than joining the U.S.-led Artemis program, has come as a great disappointment to many after decades of cooperation between the historic rivals. While the specific technical contributions the Russians will make on the Chinese led project is still unclear, there are endless possibilities as Russia’s space program budget sits in third in the world, only behind the United States and China, respectively. Amid a long-standing rivalry with China, Japan plans to bolster its space program, nearly doubling its budget, in support of NASA’s Artemis project and development of greater defense capabilities.

Recognizing the increasing landscape of space occupants, the scope of national security and military operations in space are and will become increasingly relevant. Great power competition has and will continue to occupy the realm of space. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin attested to the importance of focusing on the importance of space as a “warfighting domain ” in his Senate confirmation testimony. Upon President Biden’s decision to maintain the newly established Space Force, Secretary Austin has emphasized the Department’s “laser-like focus” on refining America’s competitive advantage against China’s increasingly powerful and technologically sophisticated military.

How can the United States make this goal a reality? President Trump’s institutional pivot to developing another sect of the U.S. armed forces, Space Force, in 2019 was not a bad start. Modern U.S. military operations heavily rely on operations in space through the use of satellites to help identify, track, and reconcile data on its adversaries. Private civilian organizations are participating in defense-related and commercial space activities as well. As humans continue to rely more heavily on the technology that coincides with an interconnected world, this will only create greater vulnerabilities for nefarious adversaries to seek to take advantage. While the futuristic branch has become touted as chaotic and inept in Steve Carell’s Netflix parody, the United States will continue to establish its competitive advantage by protecting U.S. interests far beyond the bounds of Earth.

In the era of great power competition, the United States will pursue competition in all arenas, with an increasing emphasis on cyber and technological capabilities. It is of no surprise that the Biden Administration announced within the first month of his administration transition that Space Force will be maintained and supported moving forward. National security will reign paramount for the health of the nation, but we must not eliminate any options. While China will remain as a leading power for the foreseeable future, Biden should harbor a cooperative, bilateral relationship, based on engaging in shared interests, while upholding America’s commitments to a democratic world. Some of these shared interests include problems like nuclear nonproliferation and environmental challenges associated with space junk that a powerful China can help solve.

While this complex superpower rivalry between the United States and China will not dissipate overnight, Biden should seek to develop stronger economic agreements and partnerships around the world, especially in Asia, that will circumvent some of the global dependence on China. He must seek to get more out of existing allies and partners by utilizing their resources and deepening new partnerships. Outer space will increasingly become an infinite sphere of technological advancement and extend beyond the international order. Great power competition will steer this advancement toward either cooperation or conflict and the international sphere must prepare for the road, or space, ahead.

Skylar Pollock is a junior at Carnegie Mellon University studying International Relations and Politics with minors in Cybersecurity and International Conflict, and Business Administration. Her academic interests include the national security risks and implications of emerging technologies. In her free time, Skylar enjoys exercising, bagel-making, and spending time with friends.

The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.