China and Russia are the two most influential space players besides the United States. Whereas in the past NASA was Moscow’s partner of choice, many influential Russians now look to China as their main future partner. Sino-Russian cooperation regarding global positioning and navigation satellites, space exploration, and space security has been growing and will likely continue.
From Fear to Favor
Many of China’s space exploration capabilities are based on former Soviet technologies. For example, China’s space launch vehicles originated from Soviet ballistic missile technologies, and China’s Shenzhou spacecraft resembles the design of the Russian Soyuz. Furthermore, the Soviet Union and, for a while, the Russian Federation provided early help to the PRC’s embryonic civil and commercial space program (Beiwei 40˚, May 3, 2016). For example, Russians trained some early Chinese astronauts, and Russian space launch vehicles launched several Chinese satellites. Nonetheless, for some two decades starting in the mid-1990s, the Russian government grew cautious about cooperating with China’s space program for fear of creating a formidable space competitor as well as antagonizing the United States, Moscow’s then-most important space partner.
In December 2006, the head of Russia’s Federal Space Agency, Anatoly Perminov, announced that Russia, while willing to collaborate on scientific exploration missions, would no longer transfer space technology to China. Though Russia was still launching many more space vehicles that year than the PRC or the United States, Perminov observed that, “The Chinese are still some 30 years behind us, but their space program has been developing very fast,” and “they are quickly catching up with us” due to enormous spending on the Chinese space program, which even by then had had a higher budget and a larger number of personnel than Russia (Taipei Times, December 28, 2006). As a sign of the seriousness of their concerns, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had in the previous month arrested the general manager of the TsNIIMASH-Export Company for selling unapproved technology to the All China Import-Export Company of Precision Machine Building that China could use to create missile delivery systems (One India, May 25, 2007). In 2014, the Russian state corporation for space activities, Roscosmos, determined that Russia could not supply advanced rocket engines to China due to Beijing’s exclusion from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a non-binding framework to restrict advanced missile technology transfers (Pravda, April 19, 2016).
Following the collapse of Russian-Western relations in recent years and Moscow’s resulting need to strengthen ties with China, the Russian government removed many of these restrictions and substantially expanded space collaboration with the PRC. The two governments signed a comprehensive intellectual property protection accord on space technologies on the sidelines of Putin’s visit to Beijing in 2016 as well as other agreements (Parabolic Arc, June 29, 2016).
Russia and China have since been linking their satellite-based terrestrial navigation systems, the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS, ГЛОНАСС, Глобальная навигационная спутниковая система) and the Beidou (“Big Dipper”) Global Satellite Navigation System (北斗全球卫星导航系统, Beidou Quanqiu Weixing Daohang Xitong). These satellites support civilian and national security functions such as international navigation and communications as well as specific military applications such as precision conventional strikes.
GLONASS, consisting of approximately two dozen satellites, is the world’s second satellite network to provide comprehensive global positioning, navigation, and location services following the U.S. GPS system. Developed during the Soviet era, GLONASS has had its ups and downs since the advent of the Russian Federation. In recent years, the Russian government has faced renewed challenges in maintaining the expensive GLONASS network given the strains on the Russian budget following the imposition of comprehensive Western sanctions in 2014. The United States, Europe, Ukraine, and other countries have also applied further targeted sector sanctions on many of the key high-tech components that Russia used to build its GPS network. Additionally, many GLONASS satellites have exceeded their initially planned design life and will need to be replaced soon (Eurasia Daily Monitor, April 27).
One way Russian officials have sought to overcome these challenges is to integrate GLONASS with the Beidou constellation. In January 2014, the two countries established a senior-level “Russia-China Project Committee on Important Strategic Cooperation in Satellite Navigation” (中俄卫星导航重大战略合作项目委员会 Zhong-E Weixing Daohang Zhongda Zhanlue Hezuo Xiangmu Weiyuanhui) (Beidou Website, August 4, 2019). Although this covers civil cooperation, it is worth noting that global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) can also be used for reconnaissance and guidance of high-precision weapons. Representatives of both countries have deepened their technical cooperation by signing additional data-sharing, joint development, and integrated testing agreements through annual meetings of the Committee and other engagements in subsequent years (China Brief, July 15; Xinhua, September 3, 2019). Russian officials profess to see the two navigation systems as harmonious; Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has stated that, “Our system is more suitable for northern, polar latitudes. The Chinese system is more southern. Their complementariness would result in a biggest and most powerful competitor to any navigation system” (RT, June 6, 2014).
Sino-Russian space cooperation has also extended to renewed scientific projects. In September 2017, Chinese and Russian officials adopted an outline for 2018-2022 China-Russia space cooperation which included moon and deep space development, special materials development, satellite systems cooperation, remote sensing, and spacecraft debris search (People’s Daily, April 17, 2018). Two months later, the two countries signed an agreement to collaborate on the research of space debris, earth monitoring, and lunar exploration (Aerospace Technology, March 6, 2018). Chinese and Russian scientific bodies and companies have also agreed to cooperate on deep space exploration, create a joint data center, and purchase space technology from each other (CNSA (China), March 7, 2018). The PRC has purchased Russian spacesuits and RD-180 engines, while Russia has trained Chinese astronauts, launched Chinese satellites, and bought PRC micro radio electronics compatible with space travel (Moscow Times, June 8, 2018). In 2019, 15 aerospace project implementation agreements worth a total value of 8 billion yuan were signed under the framework of the Sixth China-Russia Engineering and Technology Forum.
According to Rogozin, “China’s lunar program is practically impossible without certain supplies of equipment from Russia” (TASS, July 13, 2016). In an interview with the Global Times, Wang Yanan, deputy editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, also noted the complementarity of the two countries’ civil space programs: “Russia’s space industry has faced various problems, especially brain drain and shortage of funds after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia could offer previous experience and aeronautic infrastructure and China could contribute new ideas and needed resources, which would also avoid overlapping investment on the same projects” (Global Times, February 8, 2018).
Sino-Russian Space Security Cooperation
For over a decade, PRC and Russian representatives have accused the United States and its allies of “militarizing space” by preparing to place weapons in orbit. For example, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that the establishment of the U.S. Space Force showed that Washington was “hatching plans for putting weapons in space with a view to the possibility of conducting combat operations there,” and warned that, “A military buildup in space, in particular, after the deployment of weapons there, would have destabilizing effects on strategic stability and international security” (TASS, June 20, 2018).
The Director of the Information Bureau of the PRC Ministry of National Defense, Wu Qian, charged Washington with exploiting “so-called military threats from other countries as an excuse” to create the Space Force and pursue “absolute military superiority in space,” which “severely threatens space security and global strategic stability” (PLA Daily, December 26, 2019). Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang accused the United States of “pushing its space dominance strategy, going further down the path of weaponization of outer space and risking turning it into a new theater of warfare” (MFA China, December 23, 2019). When the United States released its new U.S. Defense Space Strategy this June, Chinese media cited Sergey Savelyev, vice president of the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, who warned that the move would undermine Russian-U.S. cooperation and lead to a new space arms race. (People.cn, June 24).
Besides their joint denunciations of U.S. space policies, the Chinese and Russian governments have also supported each other’s space security priorities in multinational forums and collaborated to restrict U.S. military space activities through international legal limitations, restrictive norms and codes of conduct, and other arms control initiatives. At the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Chinese and Russian delegations have for years promoted a treaty banning military activities in space. China and Russia jointly submitted a draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) in 2008 (MFA China, February 12). Six years later, Beijing and Moscow introduced a revised treaty draft, retitled, ‘The Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space,’ with clearer definitions and scope and with more specified dispute resolution mechanisms. The text defined a “space weapon” as an object placed into orbit with the intent of harming other space objects (MFA China, June 16, 2014). The PRC and Russian governments later submitted a working paper in September that further explained their proposal and emphasized the importance of “no first placement” of weapons in space.
While Beijing and Moscow have both maintained they would not deploy space weapons first, they assert that they would respond if the United States did so (MFA China, August 28, 2018). The United States has opposed these Sino-Russian initiatives because they lack adequate means of verification; prevent neither R&D nor even the production of weapons as long as they are not placed in space; and have been unbalanced, prohibiting the non-explosive strategic missile interceptors favored by the United States while not constraining the ground-launched direct-ascent or co-orbital ASATs under development in China and Russia.
In October 2019, Russian President Putin revealed a significant upgrade in space security collaboration with China. In a speech at the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club—which included a growing proportion of Chinese scholars and former policymakers—he announced that Russia had begun assisting the PRC in the development of a national means to detect the launch of foreign ballistic missiles: “We are now helping our Chinese partners to create a missile warning system. This is a very serious thing, that will drastically enhance the defensive capacity of the People’s Republic of China. As currently, only the U.S. and Russia have such systems” (TASS, October 3, 2019).
PRC experts praised the announcement as signs of growing mutual Sino-Russian political trust and cooperation (Global Times, October 14, 2019). The precise nature and extent of Russia’s assistance to China regarding missile early warning remains unspecified, but it could involve helping China develop improved space-based sensors, build better ground-based platforms, or the sharing of computer algorithms. Russian experts justify the collaboration as helping to advance international security by decreasing the risk of inadvertent nuclear war. Igor Korotchenko, the Editor-in-Chief of the National Defense journal, has argued that Sino-Russian cooperation “improves transparency and predictability and reduces the risks of wrong actions and mistakes by the Chinese military and political leadership” (TASS, October 4, 2019). Furthermore, since Russia is unlikely to render assistance for free, this new Sino-Russian space security cooperation should also provide another important PRC-related revenue stream for Russia’s military-industrial complex.
We might expect China and Russia to expand their satellite partnership beyond the Beidou-GLONASS connection. In December 2019, Putin announced that Russia aimed to build a “high-speed telecommunications system” in geosynchronous orbit (TASS, December 4, 2019). This will prove an expensive and technologically challenging proposition for Russia’s weakened space launch program. Until recently, Russia earned substantial revenue by conveying U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), selling rocket engines to the United States, and launching satellites for private companies and other countries, but these markets are being undercut by the rise of U.S. commercial space launch companies. Moreover, due to their limited number of commercial communication satellites (COMSATs) the Russian armed forces have had to launch a much larger number of military COMSATs than China, which has built more Earth-observation satellites (Defense News, April 2). Russia could choose to rely more on Chinese financing, technology, or satellites in the future to compensate for these deficiencies. Ongoing Sino-U.S. tensions in space will likely encourage the PRC to embrace such opportunities. A commentary in People’s Daily said that the Beidou-GLONASS partnership, as well as the broader Sino-Russian collaboration in outer space, bears the potential to “break the U.S. ‘hegemony’ in satellite navigation” (People’s Daily, April 17, 2018).
Russia could also use China’s help in relaunching its civilian space exploration program, which has cancelled or postponed many planned projects. Such collaboration could include Russian participation in China’s planned space stations, super-heavy space launch vehicles, or the PRC’s ambitious lunar and inter-planetary research and resource exploitation program. In July 2020, China and Russia preliminary agreed to construct a joint lunar base (TASS, October 12). It is also possible that the challenge of China surpassing Russia in the number and scale of satellite and space vehicle launches, as well as the revitalization of the U.S. space program, will finally reenergize Russia’s independent space efforts.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. Xiaosong Yu also contributed research and fact-checking to this article.
 See: “Sino-Russian Dialogue 2020（中俄对话——2020模式）”, Institute of international studies, Fudan University, Russian Commission on international affairs and Russian Academy of Sciences Far East Studies, July 2020, p. 20., (Unofficial Translation), https://www.iis.fudan.edu.cn/b7/b7/c6840a243639/page.htm. This is an annual report published by joint research project team between the two countries.