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With a flurry of space activity expected within next decade, ever-worsening US-China relations will become a more pressing issue, with two key areas of potential friction, reveals a new report from LSE IDEAS.

The report proves timely with the launch of the first module of China’s new orbital space station, just over a week after the US continued its successful new era of crewed spaceflight with the launch of another SpaceX Crew Dragon.

The report, authored by Gidon Gautel, an Analyst within the space industry, and former China Foresight Project Coordinator at LSE IDEAS, The London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, outlines two high-risk flash points arising from the development of the US and China’s national space programmes and industries.

According to the report, while US-China competition could see the two nations drive technological and scientific innovation, with clear benefits on Earth, it could easily hinder scientific and technological progress in space, with detrimental consequences not just for the US and China but for all actors with an interest in outer space.

The report outlines two specific areas of likely friction, namely around the roll-out of broadband mega-constellations, and increasing activities in extra-terrestrial, geographically-concentrated sites of interest.


According to Gautel via the report, as US-based firms compete with both state-owned and -backed companies in China to roll-out satellite systems that provide global broadband satellite internet coverage, competition over customers is a risk. And should tensions around this arise, this will place “unpleasant pressure” on third-party nations to “choose sides”. Worse still, an increasingly crowded space environment coupled with geopolitical tensions make orbital traffic management harder and raise the risks around space debris.

Geographically-concentrated sites of interest

The lack of US-China cooperation around space exploration poses another issue as, should sites of scientific, commercial and exploration interest be geographically concentrated, the risks of a national incident stemming from miscalculation or stubbornness by either party is an issue not to be dismissed, the report argues.

According to Gautel, confrontation of this nature is less likely to be due to direct competition over resources or scientific data, but because harsh space environments increase the risk of harmful interference from other parties.

The report finds that, going forward, all third-party actors in space should closely monitor US-China relations. Gidon also suggests that, states with diplomatic influence should increase efforts to enable frictionless coordination and information sharing between the two great powers.

For the UK, this poses opportunity to increase its international standing. Given that Britain is close to becoming a space-launch capable power, and that it is already a major economic and diplomatic actor in space, expanded international cooperation and efforts in agenda-setting would be a beneficial addition to the continued development of national capability.

Gidon Gautel, author of the report, says:

“Both the US and China host an impressive array of missions, programs and commercial space actors. However, as the two great powers’ activities in space intensify, and terrestrial relations harden, it must be recognised that this exciting era comes with some risk. Development of space brings many benefits to us on Earth and broadens our scientific horizons. It is crucial that all space actors recognise how great power relations directly affect dynamics in space, and work to ensure tensions back home don’t interfere with the countless positives of space exploration and development.”


Link to report:

For more information, contact Jonny Stone at or call 01582 790704.

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