The first in-person summit of the leaders of the Quad group of countries, comprising of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, met in Washington last week. Outer space governance found significant attention, with the joint statement stating that the grouping will explore ways to collaborate as well as share data for a range of peaceful purposes, including tracking changing climate patterns, natural disaster response and preparedness, and sustainable uses of oceans and marine resources. The group also agreed they would work on developing norms, guidelines, rules, and principles that would ensure the sustainable use of outer space.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden put an emphasis on emerging and critical technologies including space, cyber, AI, 5G, and 6G in their bilateral meeting. Significantly, they agreed to finalize by the end of the year a “Space Situational Awareness Memorandum of Understanding,” which will facilitate data sharing as well as sharing of services in order to ensure long-term sustainability of outer space.
China’s military space prowess is the key reason for this focus. Ensuring a safe, secure, and sustainable outer space has become critical in the face of growing space competition among a number of space players. On the one hand, it is triggering new competitive dynamics, especially in the context of global governance debates; but on the other, the competitive dynamic in space is pushing for new collaborative partnerships with a focus on a number of technological and normative aspects.
These new competitive dynamics are evident in the development of counterspace capabilities including kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and electronic and cyber warfare capabilities by a number of countries. China, in particular, has made impressive strides in outer space, including its pursuit of counterspace technologies. While the risks from China’s military space program may be directed primarily at the United States, countries like India and Japan cannot afford to ignore the consequences for their national security.
The establishment of specialized military space institutions are also a worrying development. China’s creation of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), which combines cyber, space, and electronic warfare, is a far more lethal institutional innovation as compared to the U.S. Space Force or India’s Defense Space Agency.
Countries like India and Japan have important stakes in ensuring uninterrupted access to space given the social, economic, and security stakes involved. This would require reviewing the existing international rules governing outer space as well as writing new rules of the road. A second requirement for a stable and secure access to outer space is developing appropriate technological countermeasures that would act as a deterrent in the face of growing counterspace capabilities.
Growing space security threats are proving to be a challenge for existing global governance measures. While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) and other agreements, developed in the 1960s and 1970s, have managed to maintain the sanctity of outer space to a large extent, they are showing their age. These were developed under different geopolitical and technological circumstances, and hence they appear inadequate in addressing the contemporary challenges. There are loopholes and expansive interpretations of what kind of activities are permitted under the OST, and there are limits to what the OST can do because the treaty prohibits the placement of only WMD in outer space, not conventional weapons.
These loopholes and drawbacks have been acknowledged by all spacefaring nations, and accordingly, there have been a number of new space security proposals over the last decade. The Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) proposal has been around since the early 1980s, but there has not been any productive negotiation on it yet. Other recent efforts include the China-Russia sponsored draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), originally proposed in 2008 (with a revised text introduced in 2014); the 2010 EU-initiated International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC), the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) in 2013, and the 2018-19 GGE on Further Practical Measures for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). None of these has led to a favorable conclusion.
In addition, there is also the U.K.’s space security proposal, “Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules, and Principles of Responsible Behaviors” which is refreshing in many ways. The absence of a prescriptive aspect in the proposal is particularly noteworthy. Also, given the enormous challenges in developing a definition of key terms such as “space weapon,” the U.K. proposal rightly focuses on a behavioral approach.
It will not be easy to develop consensus among the major powers in converting these proposals into practical governance measures. In an environment that is so politically charged, where trust has become a casualty, there is much wariness toward signing legally-binding measures. For instance, one set of countries perceive that any future international treaty measure would only limit their space capabilities whereas the “less treaty-conscious” actors will continue to develop them in disregard of their commitments. The fact that some countries have violated treaty and other international commitments (not so much in space, but regarding nuclear issues and missiles) in the past does not help the case.
Efforts to find a middle path between those who want legal measures vs. others who want political agreements need to be pursued in earnest. Political agreements may not enjoy legal status, but they could prove more beneficial in addressing political confidence and trust issues among states. But because legally-binding mechanisms enjoy the support of many states, there has been no progress on the current, more political, proposals. For that matter, the non-binding code did not survive either, although it ran into process issues than on substantive aspects.
Given the tricky road ahead, governments need to start with political measures to space governance. This is not to suggest that legal measures should be abandoned, but under the current political conditions, progress on governance debates are unlikely. Therefore, political agreements in the form of transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) need to be pursued as a bridge, to build a stronger foundation for finalizing legal agreements. But given the kind of complex space security issues, there needs to be a mix of approaches and measures even in the longer term.