US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013: Cooperate with China on Space

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The Challenge:

Satellites are crucial for national, economic, and personal security. They permit quick and secure long-distance financial transactions. First responders, disaster relief workers, and lost motorists depend on satellites to reach their destinations with a minimum of delay. Satellites provide warnings of devastating storms in enough time to take precautionary measures.  A growing number of nations depend on satellites for intelligence collection – especially the United States.  Satellites help protect US soldiers in harm’s way, and they can minimize civilian casualties in warfare.  Satellites monitor the health of the planet. 

No country benefits more from satellites than the United States. But US satellites are as vulnerable as they are valuable.  They are far easier to damage than to defend. The same is true for satellites of other nations. Because satellites orbit the earth in predictable paths, states with advanced missile and space surveillance programs can find and target them. Missiles designed to launch satellites, attack distant targets, or intercept incoming missiles can also be used to destroy satellites. Satellites are also at risk from space debris, a growing competition in space between the United States and China, and the absence of rules of the road for what constitutes responsible behavior in space. 

The challenge facing the United States and all major space-faring nations is how to secure the benefits that satellites provide at a time when abilities to disable or destroy satellites are easily acquired.  Going on the offense in space could also create havoc in heavily trafficked orbits and offers no defense against retaliation.  Protective measures in space provide limited effectiveness, at best. 

Cooperative measures for the sustainable use of space are also hard to achieve.  Three norms are of particular importance: (1) the stoppage of harmful, purposeful interference with objects in space; (2) the promotion and practice of debris mitigation measures for space; and (3) the development of a space traffic management system for space. 

The Context:

Stimson has been focusing on ways to enhance US security and to avoid dangerous confrontations in space since 2002, following concerns that the George W. Bush administration might seek to weaponize space.  The impulse by some in the Bush administration to “seize the high ground” in space was accompanied by the administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and its rejection of space diplomacy that could in any way tie the Pentagon’s hands. 

In less than a three-year span during the Bush administration, three severe debris events occurred: an anti-satellite (ASAT) test by the People’s Liberation Army, the break-up of a Russian rocket body, and a collision between a dead Russian and a functioning U.S. satellite.  The Pentagon responded to the Chinese ASAT test by demonstrating an agile, sea-based ASAT capability, doing so against a satellite about to enter the earth’s atmosphere so as to mitigate debris consequences.

In response to heightened concerns over warfare in outer space, Stimson drafted a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations in 2004.  Stimson’s second draft, in 2007, was a collaborative effort with nongovernmental organizations based in Russia, China, Japan, France and Canada.  The United States and other nations endorse and practice codes of appropriate conduct at sea, on the ground, and in the air. Activities in space do not have an analogous code. Codes of Conduct are norm-setting initiatives.  They take the form of executive agreements.

The concept of a Code of Conduct has gained momentum.  Countries of the European Union (EU), Japan and Canada have endorsed the concept, and the EU prepared and circulated its own draft Code of Conduct in 2008.  After extended deliberation, the Obama administration also endorsed a properly crafted Code of Conduct in January 2012. Russia and China have proposed a different approach, calling for a treaty to ban weapons in space, and not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects. What constitutes a “weapon” under this proposed treaty is ill-defined, and this draft treaty has no verification provisions.

In the second term of the Obama administration, space cooperation among major powers can increase, or military competition can heat up in space, including repeated instances of harmful, purposeful interference with satellites.  The Pentagon will be ready for either eventuality. The key questions are which path Beijing will choose, and whether the Obama administration will take more concerted efforts to promote an international code of conduct that strengthens or establishes norms of responsible behavior in space.  


Pragmatic Steps:

  1. Lead from the front, not from behind. The EU has not made concerted or effective efforts to broaden support for an international code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations. The Obama administration would do well not to outsource this initiative to the EU.
  2. View the space code of conduct as a big investment, rather than small change.  The code of conduct could be a door-opener for strategic engagement with Beijing.  One way to swing the calculus of the new Chinese leadership toward increased cooperation with the United States would be to propose a joint US-Chinese space mission. Options could be particularized by specialists in both countries for consideration by national leaders.
  3. Convene a series of conferences of major space-faring nations with suitable co-sponsorship to promote the conclusion of a code of conduct.
  4. Propose a moratorium by major space-faring nations of log-lasting, debris-causing ASAT tests.


From now through the January 2013 Inauguration, Stimson experts will offer their views on key international security challenges and pragmatic steps the Obama Administration can take to resolve or manage those challenges in the coming year.

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