Few Americans realize it, but their country’s dominance in high-tech innovation is now in question. This is something that Google’s former chief executive officer, Eric Schmidt, acknowledged in his recent testimony before Congress.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk has stated that China will become the world’s premier economy and world power, in large part because of Beijing’s consistent investment in high-tech innovation.
Whether it be artificial intelligence or space technology, China is rapidly becoming a dominant player in high-tech development. As these trends intensify over the next decade, China’s military threat to the United States will naturally increase as well.
At the end of February, for example, China surprised Western intelligence services with the sudden launch of a trio of Yaogan-31 satellites. As US Senator Gary Peters, a Democratic member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted, this was the third launch since January 31 – a clear indication that China’s capabilities are rapidly catching up to those of the United States.
As China’s capabilities match – and inevitably surpass – those of the US military, Washington will find itself pushed out of the Indo-Pacific region and its status as the world’s only superpower will have been erased.
The Yaogan constellation was inaugurated in 2006, with the launch of China’s first Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite for constant, all-weather imaging of the Earth. A year later, the constellation’s first optical satellite was deployed.
By 2009, the first trio of Yaogan electronic-reconnaissance satellites was added to the growing constellation.
Most experts believe that the Yaogan satellite constellation is akin to the US Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS). These satellites intercept radio signals from the ground and use them to triangulate and track the position of warships at sea.
This is an essential evolution in China’s growing naval and space capabilities. Yaogan will allow China’s rapidly modernizing military to threaten increasingly vulnerable American military units operating near China.
The key strategic aim for China is to deter US military intervention into the Indo-Pacific. The Yaogan satellite constellation’s ability to track and target US naval assets is essential for China’s growing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy.
In fact, Beijing has taken extraordinary steps to protect the Yaogan constellation itself from American anti-satellite (ASAT) attack.
In 2018, a small co-orbital satellite was deployed alongside one of the surveillance satellites of the Yaogan constellation. No one knows what the co-orbital satellite’s mission was. My colleague Brian G Chow has nicknamed these co-orbital satellites “space stalkers.” In peacetime, these tiny and maneuverable systems can be used to repair larger satellites remotely. In wartime, however, they can be fashioned into devastating space weapons.
Space stalkers could serve as bodyguards for sensitive satellites like those in the Yaogan constellation. These bodyguards could deflect American ASAT attacks against satellites belonging to the Yaogan constellation. This would keep the Yaogan constellation operating in a war with the United States, increasing China’s threat to US military forces in the Indo-Pacific region.
Many American strategists believe that as China becomes more reliant on satellites over the next decade, the US Armed Forces will be able to hold China hostage by threatening these vulnerable satellite constellations. Yet the presence of space stalkers among sensitive Chinese satellite constellations indicates an added layer of protection that American systems otherwise lack. Therefore, deterrence will be difficult to impose from Washington. And China will still possess an asymmetrical advantage.
China needs systems like the Yaogan satellite constellation to keep the US military just over the horizon in the Indo-Pacific. The harder it is for the United States to deploy forces reliably to stop a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan or possibly to fight Chinese forces in the South or East China Seas, the greater the advantage Beijing enjoys over Washington.
Yet China’s growing military capabilities have only occurred because the United States prematurely surrendered in the race for high-tech development.
As David P Goldman outlines in his recent book, while the United States has grown complacent, Beijing has identified key strategic industries that they want China to capture. By capturing high-tech fields like those of quantum computing, space technology, biotech, or artificial intelligence, China will become the center of the world.
Once China is the source of innovation for the new industrial revolution, its military will naturally grow in capabilities. Beijing will finally have the means with which to threaten the United States. By threatening the US militarily, Beijing could force fundamental changes to the international order that has long favored America.
With each new development, China’s strategic threat to the United States grows. Over time, as per Beijing’s design, the balance of power will shift in China’s favor º and that balance is unlikely to shift back, as China becomes the center of the new high-tech industrial revolution.
America must create a long-term strategy for high-tech research and development before China leapfrogs the United States technologically in the next decade, not only becoming the world’s largest economy but eventually surpassing the US military.
If a federal R&D strategy is not developed and implemented soon, the US will lose the future to China, just as both Eric Schmidt and David Goldman fear. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, “We are on notice, but we have not noticed.”
Here’s to hoping Washington notices soon.