Recently, IDSA put together a collection of short essays on the international code of conduct on space debate, wherein I had provided one from an Indian perspective. The chapter looked at some of the broad Indian positions including on a code of conduct on space to some of the specific concerns on the EU-initiated code of conduct.
The idea of establishing a set of rules on space that will guide the behaviour
of states has been gaining momentum in recent years. This has gained
particular relevance in the backdrop of the European Union (EU) making
last-minute efforts to muster support for the code of conduct on space initiated
by it. The EU decision of 29 May 2012 to sign the document officially and
strengthen bilateral and multilateral negotiations will bring pressure on India
and other space-faring nations to sign it also.
For the chapter, click here.
In this regard, the EU has set out three specific initiatives: outreach
activities in order to promote the proposal for an international code of
conduct; holding up to three multilateral experts meetings to discuss the
proposal; and the coordination of a consortium of non-governmental experts.
Technical implementation of the three initiatives will be undertaken by the
United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
The EU’s decision to bring UNIDIR into the picture seeks to give the
EU initiative a larger support base beyond Europe. This does not, however,
yet ensure support from a majority of the space-faring powers, who have
already raised serious objections, particularly about the code-formulating
India is all for institutionalizing a set of norms on space. But it also has
interests in being acknowledged as one of the major space-faring powers, with
an important voice in their formation. India has a particular interest in this
normative exercise if it will put certain restraints on China’s otherwise
unrestrained space activities. India’s interests have also to do with the fact
that it has made significant investment in a predominantly civilian space
programme that now seems to be under threat due to issues such as space
debris and potential weaponisation in space. Given the expanding nature of
space utilities, India’s interests would also be to curb some of the potential
norms that may become counterproductive to its objectives in exploiting
India has been debating this issue at Track II levels with several objectives.
Such engagement can generate an internal debate on these issues, both about
the utility of a code and to help identify the principles that should guide the
new rules. India could then become a full partner rather than coming to the
international negotiations with reactive positions to others’ proposals. India
clearly does not want to free-ride on its major-space-faring-nation status
without taking on the additional responsibilities that come along with the
status. The internal debates and the objections raised in this debate to others’
proposals should not be seen as a spoiler but of an engaged nation that wants
to frame rules that are comprehensive, inclusive and durable. As India’s
geopolitical weight increases and its reach goes beyond Asia, it cannot afford
to be simply a naysayer. It wants to play the role of a constructive actor in
the international norm creation exercises.
Having discussed the Indian interests in a code, it is also important to
understand the importance of the politics of international norm creation.
India sees a huge geopolitical mileage in this exercise. While a code goes
through several stages, including technical, legal and political clearances before
it gets institutionalized, the political exercise is critical for several reasons.
An ideal instrument should be as broad-based as possible to include issues
of concern to multiple parties and stakeholders, including space debris, arms
race in space and space weaponisation. The political support that such an
instrument musters will have a huge impact on the longevity and effectiveness
of the instrument.
As in other arenas such as nuclear, the biggest challenge in the space
domain is the crisis of decision-making among the major powers. Even while
they understand and acknowledge, to some extent, the current and potential
challenges, the failure to reach a consensus is a big handicap. Therefore, it is
of utmost importance for the EU to adopt a more flexible and inclusive
approach if it seeks a universally acceptable code. In the absence of such an
approach, one could potentially see a repeat of the H-COC experience, which
has 128 countries as signatories, but these do not include some of the critical
players in Asia such as China, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. It is not only
important to have numerous countries as signatories, but equally important
to have the critical actors on board. In sum, the new instrument should look
for both “critical mass and critical actors”.
If India were to formulate a code of conduct, it may not be significantly
different in its content from the EU initiative. But India attaches importance
to laying out concrete action plans, including a verification mechanism and
legal obligations. While the current EU code is voluntary, states that become
party to it are expected to institute certain measures at the domestic level,
which in a sense binds them to the global rules. In other words, under the
EU code, one is talking about a loose set of rules at the global level with
stringent legislation at the country level. This approach may run into
problems, given that there exists no mechanism to verify adherence to the
rules laid out in the code. Lack of clarity as to who would administer these
rules creates both ambiguity and wariness. The question whether Europe has
the ability to push such measures, given the new geopolitical realities, also
needs to be considered. However, if the EU were to institute consultative
mechanisms in the coming months, particularly with the major space-faring
countries, it might be in a position to fix some of the gaps that exist in its
In conclusion, the EU should address some of these issues, including the
need for an inclusive approach and the need for a legally binding verification
mechanism. It might also be important for the EU to consider a grouping
of major space-faring countries similar to the P5 nuclear weapon countries,
such as that recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as
nuclear weapon states. Such a group of countries may actually be keen on
addressing these issues and pushing for an actionable agenda, given the
vulnerabilities that they face. Lastly, if space traffic management is a critical
issue, one could consider newer initiatives and organisations along the lines
of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Also, establishing
a panel of experts on the model of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change), given that space debris and arms race in space are problems
that are global in nature, might be worth the effort.