Asia and a Space Code

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Asia and a Space Code

Two codes for space have prompted much debate. But the EU was late in bringing India into the process.

Establishing international norms for space has gradually started to become a priority in recent months, with two codes – the EU Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities and the Stimson Center’s Model Code of Conduct – being the subject of much international debate. And while the Stimson Code has been perceived as less controversial, the EU Code has come in for significant flak, particularly in Asia.

Asian concerns are important because future challenges to space cooperation may well come from Asia, not least because so many of the new space powers are emerging from this region. 

One key mistake the European Union made was not engaging India, one of the oldest space faring powers, earlier in the process. India is interested in instituting norms to guide the behavior of others in the space arena, but it’s also interested in being acknowledged as one of the major space powers. While the Indian position is evolving, the “not invented here” syndrome characterizes much of its current mood. 

But even as the European Union is making fresh efforts in reaching out to countries to gain support for the code, nations such as China have already made their positions clear. One EU official speaking at a conference in Paris, for example, described the Chinese as being opposed to space debris being a major item in the code. This suggests that China has plans to carry out more anti-satellite tests, something that has raised a red flag in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, China has been critical of the EU’s emphasis on sharing information about national space policies and strategies, including objectives for security related policies. Beijing has made it clear that it will be “impossible” to share information on national security.

In addition, China has articulated the need for a code under a multilateral framework that includes discussion among all space faring powers. But it has also made clear it won’t agree to any arrangements potentially affecting its development in the military space domain. While China has been active at the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space over a number of issues, its military space program has made considerable advances.

In contrast, another Asian space giant, Japan, seems to be completely behind the code. Hirofumi Katase, deputy secretary general in Japan’s Secretariat for Space Policy, urged the code’s global adoption. This move was in many ways expected given Japan’s preferences for major arms control measures. Still, the reality is that Tokyo’s space program has clearly begun to shift from completely civilian toward a potentially more militarized program.

Australia, meanwhile, hasn’t formally made its position clear. It appears in principle to agree with the sentiments expressed in the EU code, and there’s a general appreciation for the emphasis on transparency and confidence-building measures, which are traditionally popular in the West.

The United States hasn’t taken a final official position on the code, but it’s unlikely that it will fully endorse the document. Concerned that U.S. military utilization of outer space may potentially be restrained, the Department of Defense has expressed reservations over the United States becoming a party to the code.

While instituting a code of conduct on space is of the utmost importance, the West, particularly the European Union, needs to acknowledge the global nature of the issue, and the importance of the involvement of all concerned countries. The need to have Asian space powers on board is significant given the geo-political weight of Asia, and unless Asian countries are brought properly into the process, any code that the West may pursue will simply end up being a toothless treaty.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  She served in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India, from 2003 to 2007.