Thursday, January 19, 2012

Space Code: A potential area for US-India cooperation


In the recent weeks, there have been several developments on the space code ... most recently, the US rejecting it saying it is too restrictive. Here's my take (published on ORF website) on the debate and the future course, particularly looking at whether India and the US can shape this debate and ultimately a code of conduct on space.

Space debris, traffic management and orbital frequency being issues that concern both India and the US, this ideally should be on the agenda in future US-India endeavours. It might be good for both the countries if they can engage in shaping this debate that would give them ownership of the issue.



As outer space becomes increasingly crowded, it has become clear that there needs to be some clear rules for regulating activities of different nation-states in space. Instituting such a code of conduct on outer space activities has been at the centre stage for the past few months. The United Nations took the lead in this regard in 2008, with the General Assembly adopting resolution 62/217, endorsing the "Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines" of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The European Union (EU) also proposed a code of conduct on space, but it has run into rough waters for a variety of reasons and the EU has not managed to muster much support for their initiative outside the EU capitals. While the EU needs to be complimented for its initiative, unfortunately the EU did not institute a consultative mechanism, which could have brought together all the major space-faring countries. This has hurt the prospects of the EU Code.

While India has not taken a formal position on the EU Code, discussions at informal parleys suggest that India too has concerns. To start with, India has been concerned with the fact that the EU did not engage major space-faring powers, including India, in this exercise. The exclusive approach adopted by the EU in this regard has made this exercise futile. Second, while the EU Code is a voluntary and non-binding arrangement, it expects states to establish national policies that are in sync with the EU guidelines, which may or may not be in the interests of India. Such measures have been seen as affecting the legitimate national security interests of other countries.

Similar concerns have been expressed in Washington as well. Most recently, the US rejected the EU Code on the grounds that it is "too restrictive." On January 12, Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, made the US position quite clear on the EU Code saying that "it's been clear from the very beginning that we're not going along with the code of conduct." However, she also went on to say that "what we haven't announced is what we're going to do."

American concerns have ranged from the fact that this non-binding, voluntary arrangement could restrict the US military's options in space to the issue of a non-ownership of the code, the document having been produced by the EU. For instance, in a Senate hearing in May, Senator Jeff Sessions said, "we've advanced further technologically in development and actual deployment of these systems than anyone else, and agreements [and] codes of conduct tend to … constrain our military." An assessment by the Pentagon's Joint Staff supported this assessment, stating that the US becoming a party to the EU Code "would hurt the US military's space operations in several areas." Similarly, a State Department cable on the subject noted that the US "continues to have significant concerns about the widespread use of language connoting binding obligations, such as 'shall' and 'will,' in the proposed non-binding Code of Conduct."

Having junked the EU Code as too restrictive, the US is now in the process of working on a new draft, of course, with the EU draft "as a promising basis for an international Code." US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a Press Statement made amply clear the importance of instituting a code that "will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space." The US intends to join the EU and other countries in developing a code as a way of strengthening international cooperation while constraining irresponsible behaviour. However, the US move in this direction has already come in for criticism from Republicans on the ground that this is a typical Liberal arms control measure. John R. Bolton, former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, criticised the new move saying, "the last thing the United States needs is a space code of conduct. The idea of arms control has already failed in the Russian 'reset' policy, and it is sure to fail here as well." Among other criticism, two national security officials condemned the administration's national security policies as arms control-driven, which emphasise on concluding international pacts rather than building its military capabilities.

In sum, while the Obama Administration's interests in instituting a code for a safe and workable outer space environment is legitimate, this is an election year and neither the Obama Administration nor any of the other Presidential candidates will want to commit themselves to a code, especially when it has not been produced by the US.

Can the new US proposal to write the rules of the road on space be an area of interest for India? India clearly has interests in laying out the rules of the road for space conduct but it also has an interest in being recognised as a major space-faring power whose voice should form an intrinsic part in creating these rules. India cannot come on board as a latecomer. In a sense, the "Not Made Here" syndrome probably best characterises the Indian position on the EU Code. Indian interests are driven by several factors including the geopolitics of Asia and the Indian neighbourhood, which is rather hostile. Therefore, it has an interest in a normative exercise that will reduce China's aggressive and unregulated behaviour in outer space, best illustrated by their irresponsible Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test in 2007 that left behind a huge amount of space debris. Given that space debris, traffic management and orbital frequency are issues that concern both India and the US, this ideally should be on the agenda in future US-India endeavours. New Delhi's broader approach has been to institute an inclusive and comprehensive approach in addressing space security.

How should India shape the discourse in this regard? As a first step, it will be in India's interest to produce a backgrounder or white paper outlining the importance of space in India's developmental and security calculus. This in turn should lead to identifying what kind of a space future it would like to see and thereafter identify areas that would contribute to such an environment while putting in place measures that would constrain India's ability to help generate such a future. It might be good for both India and the US if they can engage in shaping this debate that would give them ownership of the issue.

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