The launch of the Tianhe module of China’s Tiangong-3 space station was followed by two incidents of note One, immediately after the separation of the module from the core stage, both made close pass to the International Space Station, sparking speculation that it was a deliberate signal. Two, the core stage made an apparently uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, splashing into waters not far from India. We conclude that:
- It remains unclear if these two incidents were intended as signals, given China’s own imperfect safety record in space and the lack of corroborating evidence.
- China already has nascent co-orbital capabilities and long-range precision guided missiles, which could make such signals superfluous for signalling capabilities. However, they can be used to signal resolve.
- The launch of the Tianhe module and the speculation over the incidents that followed are products of a decline in space cooperation between great powers, the creeping weaponisation of space, and concerns about China’s own counterspace capabilities.
- To detect and interpret any signalling China might undertake in the near future, India must bolster its space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities by increasing its own capabilities, cooperating with other states, and sharing information.