By Tom O’Connor,
Published by Newsweek, 14 December 2021
With China refusing to discuss efforts to limit its nuclear weapons arsenal on Earth, President Joe Biden’s administration is hoping to pursue an arms control treaty in outer space involving the People’s Republic.
Washington and Beijing remain lightyears apart even on some of the most basic language that attempts to define the rules of the extraterrestrial road. But the fact that the two rivals leading in this domain both seek to strike a deal among nations means there may be hope yet. And China’s rapid rise as a space power puts the nation in a position to have a say on the issue.
A State Department official highlighted the contrast between China’s opposition to entering into negotiations on its nuclear weapons, a stockpile that still lags behind the massive arsenals wielded by Russia and the United States, and its ambitious approach to pursuing arms control efforts in space, where Beijing has joined forces with Moscow in an effort to push forward a multilateral accord known as the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT).
“The Chinese are very resistant to any sorts of conversations about restraints or arms control on their nuclear programs,” the State Department official told Newsweek. “On the space side, they co-sponsor this space treaty with the Russians. And also it’s very different in the space sector than the nuclear sector. Yes, China currently has lower numbers [of nuclear weapons] than the U.S. and Russia. Yes, they are building up so they might have 1,000 by 2030. But in space, it’s completely flipped.”
While the current Chinese nuclear weapons count is generally estimated as being around 350, far behind the roughly 6,375 believed to be wielded by Russia and 5,800 in U.S. possession, China has managed to surge ahead in space. That puts Beijing in a position of strength for diplomacy in this domain, an advantage that the Biden administration hopes may actually incentivize efforts to find common ground.
“Russia is a very distant third to the Chinese in terms of number of satellites on orbits, in terms of number of launches per year,” the official said. “China really is that second, number two behind the United States in space, so I think they recognize that.”
“I think they want to be seen more as a peer in this area,” the official added. “So I am hopeful that we can have those types of conversations with them.”
The potential perils of weaponizing space were demonstrated in explosive fashion just last month when Russia launched a ballistic missile from Earth toward a defunct Soviet satellite, bursting it into countless shards of debris that will remain in space for what U.S. officials estimate will be 1,500 years.
The crew of the International Space Station, which at the time included U.S., German and Russian personnel, were forced to take shelter after the explosion.
Though the test drew condemnation from a number of nations, both Washington and Moscow have an extensive history of anti-satellite weapons technology dating back to the so-called “space race” theater of the broader Cold War waged between the two superpowers decades ago. The U.S. conducted its first anti-satellite missile intercept via a modified air-launched missile in 1985.
A new contender entered the fray in January 2007, when China took out one of its own satellites with an Earth-based missile. The U.S. answered that display of military space prowess with a sea-launched missile strike against a failing spy satellite. India joined the military space showcase in March 2019, taking out a satellite in low orbit.
The State Department official noted that China’s test nearly 15 years ago was actually conducted “at a higher altitude” than last month’s Russian launch, “and it created thousands of pieces of debris, and that debris is going to be up there for hundreds of years because of the height that it was done.”
The State Department official said that China’s acceleration in counterspace capabilities was “absolutely” a motivating factor in the Biden administration seeking to get some sort of deal in place.
“Certainly, we want to have those conversations on risk reduction, avoiding miscalculation, all of that,” the official added.
Citing national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the State Department official said, “we’re going to have these risk-reduction conversations with the Chinese.”
“I think space should be a very important one in that,” the official added.
While the State Department official said there is already an established dialogue with Chinese counterparts that covers issues of space weaponization, setting the stage for an international treaty remains a formidable task.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the one existing space-related pact signed by the majority of the world’s countries, including China, Russia and the U.S. It’s core principles include banning the deployment of nuclear weapons in space, declaring space as a frontier through which all nations may freely travel, and precluding any government from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies.
The Treaty was reaffirmed in 1981 through a resolution known as the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) that further called for a ban on all weapons in outer space. Washington, however, opposed this initiative and instead sought direct talks with Moscow on the future of arms control in outer space.
With little progress made, Russia and China came to expand on PAROS by introducing the PPWT in 2008, shortly after the latest ASAT test by the U.S. The treaty is currently being discussed at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, but Washington has consistently shot down this campaign as well, believing that it does not adequately address issues including verification, the development, possession and testing of such platforms, or the use of terrestrial anti-satellite missiles.
At the United Nations General Assembly First Committee, China and Russia have also jointly pushed related initiatives such as a resolution calling for “no first placement of weapons in outer space,” which ultimately was adopted last week with widespread support despite protests from the U.S. and eight other nations.
One of the phrases the U.S. found objectionable in the resolution was a passage that establishes “a common shared future for humankind.” But a Chinese official tasked with arms control efforts at the U.N. defended the phrase.
“The concept of a community of shared future for humankind has been included in the outer space resolution with overwhelming support for five consecutive years,” the Chinese official told Newsweek. “This fully shows that the concept has won wide support of the U.N. member states and is consistent with the aspirations of the international community to defend common security in outer space.”
Those remarks echoed comments made Thursday by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, who argued that the vote set the U.S. at odds with the rest of the world.
“Regrettably, the U.S. and certain other countries, out of ideological considerations, have turned a blind eye to the shared appeal of the international community while claiming that they would work ‘toward a shared future’ and had no intention to start a new Cold War,” Wang said.
“They deliberately undermine solidarity, stoke confrontation, and try hard to smear and distort the idea of a community with a shared future for mankind,” he added. “Facts have fully proven that such irresponsible and double-standard moves of the U.S. will be firmly opposed by a vast number of U.N. member states.”
Wang asserted that “a just cause should be pursued for common good,” and that “we hope certain countries can understand this vision instead of embarrassing themselves by inciting confrontation.”
“They should abandon the Cold War mentality and ideological bias at an early date, actively participate in the arms control process in outer space, and stay committed to true multilateralism,” he added. “China will continue to work with all parties, practice the idea of building a community with a shared future for mankind in outer space, and make [a] positive contribution to defending lasting peace and common security in outer space.”
But the State Department official with whom Newsweek spoke claimed the proclamation of “a common shared future for humankind” was a mismatch for arms control measures, and instead represented an expression of Chinese state-sponsored ideology known as “Xi Jinping Thought,” after the man who has led China since 2013.
“‘The shared future of mankind’ is specific language that relates to Chinese political thoughts on what the shared future of mankind should be, and [is] not necessarily representative of typical U.N. language that we would want to see in these types of things,” the State Department official said. “It certainly has no existing precedent in the Outer Space Treaty or others.”
The official said that the U.S. side offered an alternative formulation, “recognizing the common interest of all mankind,” a wording that is found in the present Outer Space Treaty, and “comes to the same point.”
“But they specifically wanted this because it had been spoken by Leader Xi,” the official added.
For its part, the U.S. has backed another resolution that was accepted last week with more votes and fewer abstentions. Sponsored by the United Kingdom, it calls for the establishment of an open-ended working group that is set to meet twice next year and twice in 2023.
The resolution is a part of the PAROS agenda that the U.S. has never endorsed. The State Department official said, however, that the goal of this resolution “is setting up a U.N. process that will look at norms of responsible behavior.”
“But also, we look at whether those norms can actually form legally binding arms control as well,” the official added.
At the same time, State Department official acknowledged that arriving at mutually agreeable language that will be “legally binding on some things, it’s going to be so hard,” as even “the definition of weapons in space” is up for debate, “because there are so many dual-use systems up there.”
China and Russia were among the eight countries to vote against the U.K.-led resolution, but they have not precluded their possible participation in the open-ended working group. There they may have a chance to promote their interpretation of the best route to achieve a treaty in space, even though they, like the U.S., remain wary of competing capabilities already being developed.
Aaron Bateman, a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University and former U.S. Air Force officer who is a fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, said that “historically, cooperation and competition in space are not mutually exclusive.”
But he also emphasized how language could prove an obstacle to arms control in this emerging domain.
“The success or failure of a multilateral space arms control agreement will be contingent on the scope and aims of the agreement,” Bateman told Newsweek. “The space arms control record from the late 1970s and the 1980s reveals that the United States and the Soviet Union disagreed on how to even define what constituted an anti-satellite weapon.”
And the development of new, ill-defined platforms pose additional challenges.
“The relationship between anti-satellite weapons and missile defense technologies further complicated arms control talks,” Bateman said. “Using the lessons from Cold War arms control negotiations, there is a greater likelihood of securing a limit on specific behaviors, e.g. debris-producing anti-satellite tests, than an agreement to eliminate entire classes of weapons technologies.”
Jessica West, who serves as a senior researcher in the peace research institute of Canada’s Project Ploughshares, and is managing editor of the international Space Security Index project, also noted the difficulty in defining what is and is not a weapon.
She said current U.N. resolutions have thus far failed to address this critical complication.
“It completely depends on what counts as a weapon, and the track record seems to be that nothing is counted as a weapon,” West, who has interacted with U.N. bodies facilitating multinational diplomacy on outer space, told Newsweek. “Unfortunately, these kinds of political statements don’t work if the concept of a weapon is determined by the state deploying the capability.”
Absent some sort of understanding, experts say the number of weapons in space may proliferate rapidly in the coming years.
General David D. Thompson, the first vice chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force told a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum just last week that he felt the very sort of space-based arms race that PAROS tried to prevent four decades ago was already upon Washington and Beijing, while they are locked in a belligerent bout of geopolitical tensions on Earth.
He said that China is “building and fielding and updating their space capabilities at twice the rate we are.”
“If we don’t start accelerating our development and delivery capabilities, they will exceed us,” Thompson added.
Keeping with the Cold War theme, the most senior U.S. military official, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley, referred to China’s recent reported tests of a weapon incorporating elements of a hypersonic glide vehicle and a space-faring fractional orbital bombardment system this summer as being “very close” to a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the Soviet satellite that marked the first of its kind in the world to enter orbit in 1957.
Chinese officials have said their test involved a reusable space vehicle, not unlike the U.S. Space Force’s own X-37B miniature shuttle.
The two-decade space competition between Washington and Moscow is generally seen as having ended in 1975 when the two rivals decided to look past their earthly tensions and cooperate in space, an agreement that continues to this day.
But it is a different story when it comes to the U.S. and China.
A law known as the Wolf Amendment passed a decade ago bans the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from cooperating with the China National Space Administration (CNSA), frustrating experts on both sides and prolonging the feud.
But as serious competition between the U.S. and China appears inevitable in many respects, West felt that there is still ample room for cooperation in space.
“There is a lot of common ground to be found between China and the United States in outer space,” she said, “particularly efforts to ban or stop testing kinetic ASAT weapons that create space debris.”
“China is very much dependent on space-based capabilities, not only for military activities but for the day-to-day life of its citizens,” she added, noting that Chinese astronauts — or taikonauts — were at just as much risk of debris caused by anti-satellite tests such as those conducted by Russia and others before it.
“All four countries that have demonstrated a kinetic ASAT capability to date have shown themselves to have sufficient ability to strike at objects in space,” West said. “I don’t think that there is any need or incentive for them to have to test these capabilities in a destructive manner in the future. Let’s get on with a ban and focus on non-proliferation.”
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