Monday, January 23, 2012

US Proposal on Space CoC: International Responses

Space code of conduct is in news with new developments almost on a daily basis. Here's a quickie from me on the international responses and what India should do to capture the space in framing the debate, published by ORF.

The debates around setting up an international code of conduct for outer space activities is getting more interesting. Recent proposals such as the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the European Union-proposed Code of Conduct have highlighted the importance of a cleaner and safer outer space, although these have not found many takers around the world.

Most recently, the US rejected the EU Code saying that it is "too intrusive." Making the US position clear, Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, during a breakfast meeting on January 12, said, "it's been clear from the very beginning that we're not going along with the code of conduct." However, she clarified that "what we haven't announced is what we're going to do."Thereafter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a Press Statement and the Department of Defense (DoD) issued a Fact Sheet on space code of conduct arguing the need to come up with an international code of conduct. Specific concerns relate to space debris, radio frequency interference and competition as more countries and private corporations enter the fray.1

Official responses by Tauscher and thereafter by the State Department and DoD to the EU Code have sent mixed signals. On the one hand, the US has rebuffed the code saying it constrains the US military's options in space while the DoD suggested that the Code is "a promising basis for an international code." This indicates that there is probably only a minor disagreement - over who spearheads the Code initiative so that it musters wide support. However, this is a smart political move by the US. The EU could not have managed to gather much support for its initiative.

Meanwhile, there have already been some reactions to the US proposal. Moscow ridiculed Washington for sidelining or ignoring the earlier initiatives at framing measures for responsible behaviour in outer space. A few months back, Beijing used similar arguments as the US reached across to start bilateral talks on space security.

Moscow also found slip-ups in the new American approach saying that the critical issue of militarisation of space is missing in Washington's proposal. There is merit in this; the draft treaty proposed by Russia and China, "Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects"(PPWT) at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) makes "prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and of an arms race in outer space" as important elements of their initiative. However, there are also several flaws with this formulation. First, the draft treaty considers only placement of weapons in outer space and does not take into account ground-based weapons for outer space operations. In fact, 'weaponisation of outer space' often refers only to weapons placed in outer space that will damage and destroy space-based assets. But this is inadequate because ground-based weapons can also target space activities. Ground-based lasers, for example, can target satellites.Operations based on ground-based weapons are likely to go up in the future.

Second, China had earlier made it clear that it did not consider space debris as a major issue to be included in a code,which reflects the Chinese intention to carry on with activities that may create debris, and damage and destroy space assets. Third, China's military space activities have continued unabated even as it suggests the PPWT. There are also other contradictions - China, on the one hand, works with COPUOS on the issue of space debris but on the other hand, it makes it clear that it will not support an instrument that considers space debris as an issue.

Now that Moscow has made its position clear, it will be the turn of Beijing to voice its opposition to the US effort as a superficial initiative that does not look at weaponisation of space. It appears that China and Russia will join hands again and earn some brownie points from arms controllers by harping about weaponisation of space while continuing with their weaponisation efforts. But more importantly, Moscow and Beijing need to introspect whether their activities are contributing and strengthening the writing of these rules. Michael Listner, for instance, opines that the two of them have in fact have done the "most destructive ASAT tests" creating debris to such levels where the "ISS is playing the orbital version of dodge ball."

Meanwhile, it appears that Australia is getting on board for an international code under the US leadership. Japan had already endorsed the EU Code and one can see an even greater effort on the part of Tokyo to push and muster support for the US proposal. Canada has also extended full support for the proposal.

How should India react to the developments? It is in India's interests to institute a code for guiding certain responsible behavior in order to ensure a cleaner, safer, and less congested outer space. It is also in Indian interests to ensure that a code takes shape that brings certain restraint on China. And, it will be to our benefit if India took the lead in spearheading the creation of a code along with the US and other major spacefaring powers. It is understood that in a recent briefing on the issue in Washington DC, US officials repeatedly emphasized the potentially critical role that India could play in developing a code, starting from negotiations to giving shape to the final instrument. Consultative meetings should start towards this end in the next few months and it will do well if India debates this internally and reaches considered and constructive position on the subject. India should recognize that it should not let opportunity pass again on a major global issue. New Delhi has to be inside the tent rather than outside if it is to be able to frame the rules and regulations that will affect its own future in space.
1 It is estimated that there are around 60 nations and government consortia that operate satellites. There are additionally several commercial and academia satellite operators, which make outer space a congested place. There are roughly 22,000 objects in orbit out of which 1,100 are active satellites, tracked by the US Department of Defense. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of small objects that may be difficult to track but those that can still cause damage to assets in the orbit. For info, see Department of State, International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities: Strengthening Long-Term Sustainability, Stability, Safety, and Security in Space, January 17, 2012, available at

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