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Space Regime in Deep Distress: Experts

Capabilities, intent, geopolitics, and national economic ambitions have all stymied efforts to buttress multilateral governance of outer space, a new DRI report finds.

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Space Regime in Deep Distress: Experts
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The following is based on excerpts from the March 2021 Diplomat Risk Intelligence Monthly Report “An Asian Space Odyssey.” The full report is available here.

After a relative lull following the end of the Cold War, space is back with a vengeance, along with geopolitical rivalry and accelerated defense modernization plans. What is new and an additional complicating factor, this time around, is the realization that space exploration and presence may be intimately tied not only with national prestige and military gains (its principal drivers during the Cold War) but also with an economic edge for those invested in it. However, technical advances that have contributed to civilian, military and commercial space capabilities in, and aspirations of, key Asia-Pacific powers have not been matched with commensurate shared understanding on how these capabilities are to be put in to play in a way acceptable to all.

In a new Diplomat Risk Intelligence, five prominent experts on space issues examined — among many other key issues related to Asia-Pacific’s outer space engagement — how the space security regime, and capabilities and intent, have not tracked each other, with geopolitics and national economic aspirations introducing further complications.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute scholar Malcolm Davis writes:

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) bans the deployment or use of nuclear weapons in space. It doesn’t ban the development, testing and deployment of non-nuclear ASATs [anti-satellite weapons]. Efforts since the OST to prohibit ASATs, such as the Russian and Chinese proposals for a Prohibition on the Placement of Weapons (PPWT) in space, and the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space agreement, as well as an EU Code of Conduct for Outer Space activities, have failed in part due to challenges in defining what constitutes a space weapon and challenges associated with verification and monitoring. The Russian and Chinese efforts with PPWT sought to ban co-orbital ASATs, but did nothing to constrain either direct-ascent ASATs or ground-based counterspace capabilities. Defining what constitutes a co-orbital ASAT is becoming increasingly difficult as a “grey zone in orbit” emerges due to the blurring between commercial space capability and potentially hazardous or malign rendezvous and proximity operations.

Interestingly, as Secure World Foundation analyst Victoria Samson points out in her contribution to the report:

An added complication is that Russia historically has not accepted that commercial space exists. When negotiations were underway in the 1960s for the Outer Space Treaty (OST), Soviet negotiators wanted it enshrined in the treaty that space would be for nation-states only. Finally, as a compromise, Article 6 of the OST requires nations to provide continuing supervision of any space activities by its citizens.  Right now, there are roughly 3500 active satellites.  Looking at filings with the FCC for spectrum, there could potentially be 107,000 active ones by the end of this decade. They will not all come to fruition but a lot of them will, and with that will solidify a fundamental change in the space domain, as it is commercial actors launching these mega-constellations, not nation-states. With the space domain shifting from one dominated by nation-state actors to one that is dominated by commercial actors, Russia’s lack of true commercial space very well may contribute to its drop in space stature.

The result? Russia could very well like to make up for the lack of its commercial/civilian space heft by doubling down on its military counterspace capabilities, adding further stress on the extant space security regime.

Growing interest in space-resource extraction too is increasingly playing a large role in pushing the edges of the OST. Consider the fact that in April last year, then-U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that allowed the United States to mine the moon and otherwise extract resources from outer space. While his administration had argued at that time that this order was not in violation of the OST – and keep in mind that the U.S. is not a signatory to the 1979 Moon Treaty, which the order would have run afoul of had the U.S. been a party – analysts have pointed out that Trump’s moon-mining plans (and the Artemis Accords that buttress it) run against the spirit of the outer space as a global commons.

China’s space ambitions too have a significant economic bent. Scholar Namrata Goswami writes in her contribution:

For China, investing in outer space moves beyond prestige and reputation, beyond a “flags and footprints” model of the Cold War. Instead, China aims to develop capacity for establishing permanent space presence, from which it would economically benefit in the long term. The global space economy today is worth $350 billion but is predicted to be worth between $1.2 trillion to $3 trillion by 2040. The economic returns from future mining of space-based resources like titanium, platinum, water-ice, thorium, Helium-3, iron-ore, are several trillions.  By 2050, China aspires to return $10 trillion annually from investments in the Earth-moon economic zone.

Observer Research Foundation scholar Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan flags that the problem with the existing space security regime and the supporting legal treaties is even deeper and foundational. She writes:

There are also definitional issues with the existing treaties. For instance, the understanding of key terms such as militarization of space has undergone important changes over the decades.  In the 1950s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union emphasized the peaceful uses of space, at least in their official rhetoric. This, in the initial years, meant non-military uses. But once they launched their own satellites, they began to interpret the term more broadly to suggest “non-aggressive” actions. By the 1960s, both the U.S. and the USSR were launching many satellites with direct military uses. This was a slippery slope, with the distinction between militarization and weaponization of space becoming vaguer. Today, this understanding has become even broader to mean non-destructive uses. So, while OST has prevented states from placing WMD in space, development of counter-space capabilities with an apparent “non-destructive” use is considered acceptable. Therefore, in the absence of clarity of what constitutes peaceful use of space or a space weapon, the effectiveness of existing mechanisms is questionable.

It is of course tempting to put the blame for the fraying space security regime on growing capabilities – as well as intent – especially when it comes to new space military technologies, including the development of co-orbital ASATs and other weapons. But the fundamental issue is that increasingly – and quite naturally, as a matter of fact – intense geopolitical rivalries are also manifesting themselves as hindrances in further developing new norms and regimes, including those for the outer space. As Carnegie Endowment for International Peace researcher Ankit Panda writes in the concluding section of the DRI report:

While certain technological developments — especially in the military realm — have stymied progress on governance (for instance, disagreements between the United States on the one hand and China and Russia on the other), technologies in and of themselves are not the source of the continued dearth of institutions and mechanisms to manage the safe and sustainable use of space. With the major powers still divided on space, the obstacles today to better and more robust space governance are largely political. New initiatives, such as the United Kingdom’s submission of a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly in 2020, could enhance common understanding among states. Absent major systemic shifts in how the main space powers relate to each other, technological progress is likely to continue to outpace progress on space governance over the next decade.

DRI Monthly Reports are rigorous research investigations that go beyond reportage and commentary to add permanent value for clients. Access previous reports here.