Two days before US president Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a frosty confab in Bali, a secret, autonomous spacecraft descended from its orbit hundreds of miles above the planet to land at Cape Canaveral.
Its timing, however coincidental, served to underscore how the greatest tensions between China and the US may not be on land or sea.
“I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War,” Biden told reporters after his meeting with Xi on Monday, Nov. 14. But there’s clearly a nascent Cold War-style arms race taking place in space, with nations testing and revealing new tools in orbit designed to give each other pause.
The X-37B, a Boeing-built spacecraft operated by the US Space Force, had spent 908 days in space, a new record. Ostensibly, it was there to test new technology for the military and for NASA. But unlike most small spacecraft, it has a propulsion system powerful enough to alter its orbit , which makes it easier to hide.
That “means our adversaries don’t know…where it’s going to come up next,” former Pentagon official Heather Wilson said in 2019. “And we know that that drives them nuts. And I’m really glad about that.”
In 2019, military experts told Quartz that a “space Pearl Harbor” over Taiwan was a key concern for the US. Its military depends on satellites to project power abroad, including a set of missile-spotting satellites known as SBIRS.
“Without those, the US can’t defend against China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles,” said Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation. He described one war-gamed incident in which “China takes one or two of those satellites out as a warning to deter the US from getting involved in a Taiwan straits scenario.”
China could do that with an anti-satellite missile launched from the Earth, which is one reason why the US and its allies are pushing for a United Nations ban on testing those weapons, which create dangerous amounts of orbital debris.
But China could also interfere with US satellites using other means.
In August, China launched what foreign observers believe is its own reusable space plane, capable of deploying smaller satellites and maneuvering. It’s hard to say if it is as capable as the X-37B, but it’s likely driving US Space Force trackers a little nuts, too.
Nuts because Biden and Xi do not see eye-to-eye about Taiwan, the island nation in the Pacific that China claims as its own and which it considers, according to state media, “the first red line in US-China relations that cannot be crossed.”
Biden said he does not foresee an imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan—perhaps in part due to the negative example of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—but tensions over its important chip-making business and its importance to Xi’s domestic legitimacy are making everyone a bit nervous.
Militaries view a lot of space capabilities that seem fairly anodyne as potential threats. The US Space Force has called out Russia for operating a spacecraft called Kosmos 2543 that can deploy smaller satellites at high speed, which the Space Forces sees as threatening projectiles. And it has called out China for operating a maneuvering satellite with a robotic arm that could conceivably be used to grapple other spacecraft.
A US Space Force spokesperson told Quartz this summer that both nations have the technology to jam satellites, and are developing laser weapons for use against spacecraft.
“We’ve moved from an era where space made our military effective, to one where space is required for our military to have even basic effectiveness,” Tory Bruno, the CEO of United Launch Alliance, a rocket company that works closely with the US military, told Quartz earlier this month. “And [China] invested for about a decade and a half in anti-satellite weapons. That’s kind of our Achilles’ heel. If they can take that away from us, we are not as strong, we can’t keep the peace, they are more free to intimidate their neighbors.”
This story has been update to clarify the X-37B’s ability to maneuver in space.