Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Writing the Rules on Space: Why Inclusion Matters

Recently two American scholars Bharat Gopalaswamy and Gaurav Kampani wrote an article on space code and the Indian debate, in Space News. The article, while citing my Occasional Paper, came to very different conclusions and even suggested that the current Indian debate was the role of a "spoiler." It went on further to suggest that "Indian security pundits seek power for India without the responsibility that comes with wielding it."

Here's my response article that has appeared in the Jan. 23 edition of Space News.

India’s interests in nonproliferation measures have been well known — starting from its efforts on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Despite its earnest intentions, New Delhi has been unable to effect serious transformation in the nonproliferation discourse. Now India is making efforts to play a constructive role on the space code of conduct issue that has been gaining momentum in recent months.

Although two codes are under discussion — the Stimson Center code and the European Union (EU) code — it is the EU code that has become contentious. The EU is making an eleventh-hour effort to gather support to universalize the code although it has been met with certain inflexible positions from non-EU capitals. While most of the countries have yet to come out with a formal position on the code, discussions and debates at unofficial parleys suggest that EU has a long, tough journey ahead in mustering the kind of support that it needs to have its space code institutionalized.

Debates in some Asian capitals have led to position papers that are indicative of certain broad trend lines as far Asian positions on the code are concerned. I recently produced a paper, published by the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank, that tried to summarize the perspectives from the Indian strategic, scientific and military communities. A recent commentary in Space News by two respected American analysts, Bharath Gopalaswamy and Gaurav Kampani, criticized some of the arguments made in my paper. I take this opportunity to respond to their comments.

India has an obvious interest in wanting to define the rules of the road on space (as do other powers). India is an emerging space power and it wants to curtail potential norms that will be counterproductive to its ambition in exploiting space. This is particularly important to a developing country that has invested enormous wealth toward its space program and now sees that being threatened because of issues such as space debris, aggravated by potential military tests in space, such as the anti-satellite (ASAT) tests that China and the U.S. have conducted in recent years. Thus, India has a material stake in the kinds of space rules now being proposed.

Gopalaswamy and Kampani underestimate the importance of the political component in international rule-making. The geopolitical value of India’s efforts in this normative exercise is tremendous. While the two authors appear astonished at some of the responses from the strategic community in New Delhi, this can at best be described as lacking an understanding of the geopolitical aspects of this exercise. A code, before it becomes institutionalized, goes through several critical stages — politico-diplomatic, technical and legal clearances.

Of these, the politico-diplomatic is the most critical for a variety of reasons. The kind of political support the code gathers determines the scope of the instrument. A successful politico-diplomatic initiative would ensure that it has wide-based support, even if it means that the content of the treaty is left as broad as possible to include all issues of concern to the various participants, including space debris and the arms race in space. In fact, today it is a problem of decision-making — more specifically, crisis in reaching a consensus (indeed, even in identifying challenges) among the major powers — that is at the root of the problem. This is not a problem unique to space security, of course, but that does not make it any easier. Major powers have to reach a political consensus in tackling some of these challenges, and in fact the technological part of the problem becomes much smoother if there is a political consensus among the major actors. Consensus also would ensure the longevity of any arms control measures in space. Gopalaswamy and Kampani fail to fully understand the import of this political imperative.

The EU clearly lost out on the politico-diplomatic front. If the EU were to do this again, it would be wise to go for an inclusive approach bringing together all the spacefaring nations and making them part of the creative process instead of the EU deciding on its own what is good for the world. While the EU’s initiative is commendable, its method is not.

Gopalaswamy and Kampani assert that India is “doggedly” insistent on a legal framework with enforcement and verification mechanisms built in. India does eventually want a legal framework, but Delhi is realistic to understand that it may have to move gradually toward such mechanisms and that it has to start from a normative exercise. India faces potential problems posed by both space debris and ASAT weapons, which are therefore understandably high on the agenda of Indian decision-makers. China’s ASAT test in 2007 was an eye-opener to the kinds of hard military realities that exist in India’s neighborhood.

The two authors have again reached misplaced conclusions about the importance of space debris in India’s priorities — including their reference to India’s failure to disaggregate space debris and ASAT tests. While the geopolitical and hard military realities may compel India to do an ASAT test, it is not to suggest that India underplays the criticality of space debris. It is also wrong to suggest that India does not pay attention to the creation of debris from a variety of different sources other than ASAT tests. The very fact that certain sections within the scientific establishment in India see the potential in using laser technology in order to reduce the amount of space debris is an illustration of the importance attached. Orbital debris remediation is certainly one area in which India and the U.S. could collaborate, and in fact this could easily feed into a broad array of cooperation in the space domain between the two countries.

The point to be emphasized is that precisely because India has an interest in the normative process and institutionalizing a space code, it is important for New Delhi to sit on the high table as an active party shaping the debate. It is rather unfortunate to characterize India’s efforts at triggering a debate on space security as that of a spoiler. India is certainly not looking to free-ride with major spacefaring nation status without shouldering any responsibility that comes along with that status.

The importance of being norm-shaper is important in the Indian discourse. This will also send out clear signals to its friends and foes in Asia and beyond about the potential role of India in any normative exercise. Therefore, the larger point is for India to have its own debate about the utility of the code of conduct and then become a full partner rather than to be pushed into it resentfully. Of course India has to come to the bargaining table with a strong proactive position that is considered and constructive and not reactive and defensive. It is not in India’s interests to be a naysayer in an international forum if it has ambitions to emerge as a major power in the coming decades.

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