Commentary | Waiting for Trouble

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The United States and China have no experience and no agreements to avoid or defuse incidents in space or at sea, where both countries are flexing their military capabilities. In contrast, during the Cold War, Washington and Moscow employed many channels of communication to avoid misunderstandings, increase transparency and reach agreements to cooperate as well as compete. 

If the United States and the Soviet Union could manage to avoid warfare in these domains — despite an intense ideological and geopolitical competition, severe crises and proxy wars, as well as nuclear arms and space races — then Washington and Beijing could too. So far, however, neither capital has made this a priority. 

Internal deliberations were heated in both the United States and the Soviet Union at the outset of strategic arms negotiations, and opening gambits were far apart. Critics of nuclear arms control in the United States argued that interagency bargaining weakened Washington’s leverage. Soviet military negotiators had different qualms, initially objecting when the U.S. delegation discussed “secret” data that their civilian counterparts weren’t cleared to hear. 

Negotiations have had their ups and downs, but Washington and Moscow are now in their fourth decade of treaty implementation. Veteran observers can figure out stratagems, habits and red lines. Formal and tacit understandings for nuclear weapons and space helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot, and facilitated deep cuts in Cold War legacy arsenals.

We don’t know if civilian and military leaders are on the same page in China, or how much the party leadership understands the ramifications of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) doctrine, military exercises and test practices. There are no nuclear negotiations to prepare for. Beijing says it will sit on the sidelines until the United States possesses a similarly sized arsenal.

U.S. and Soviet nuclear laboratory officials met regularly during the Cold War. Because of these contacts, lab officials were able to cooperate in extreme circumstances after the Soviet Union’s demise to lock down nuclear weapons and fissile material. U.S. and Chinese laboratory exchanges have been limited ever since a congressionally mandated commission raised concerns about Chinese nuclear espionage in 1999.

The superpower competition in space included intense chapters but was moderated by cooperation, most symbolically in the 1975 docking of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft and on the international space station. Cooperation in space between the United States and China is minimal in part because Beijing is leery of engagement, and in part because Congress has forbidden NASA from bilateral engagement with Chinese counterparts. There is an ongoing strategic and economic dialogue, but space issues do not figure in these talks.

After several close calls at sea, Washington and Moscow negotiated the Incidents at Sea Agreement in 1972. A companion agreement was negotiated in 1989 to prevent escalation arising from dangerous military practices involving ground and air forces operating in close proximity. These codes of conduct didn’t stop competitive practices or the potential for crises, but they provided mechanisms to prevent incidents from spiraling out of control. China isn’t a party to incidents at sea agreements. Both bilateral and regional agreements are worth pursuing, but the Obama administration hasn’t championed them and China’s leadership is leery of codes of conduct. 

If the United States and China clash, it will most likely be in a global commons. China’s leaders have not dealt with incidents at sea, and no one has experience in managing the escalatory potential of space and cyber warfare. 

One prerequisite of successful crisis prevention and management is close coordination between civil and military leaders on national security issues. The notion of a National Security Council, where government leaders confer with senior Cabinet officers and military leaders, is alien to China, where the party rules. A National Security Council-type body is just now being set up within the Politburo. The absence of coordination was apparent when the PLA tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, creating a debris field endangering China’s own and 200 other satellites and all human spaceflight. After this test, China’s Foreign Ministry was silent for two weeks. The PLA views secrecy as an asset while playing catch-up with the United States. It is as wary of interaction with the U.S. military as the Soviet General Staff was at the outset of nuclear negotiations in 1969. 

One good reason for finalizing an international code of conduct for responsible spacefaring nations is that it would establish a channel for consultation. Another is that it would establish a norm against anti-satellite tests like the one the PLA conducted in 2007. Debris is now a common enemy of all spacefaring nations that threatens to make dead zones in heavily trafficked orbits, just as pollution has produced dead fishery zones. 

Lines of communication and agreements to avoid or defuse incidents between China and the United States are either nonexistent or insufficient. Without them, it’s only a matter of time before an incident occurs that will require untried, ad hoc arrangements to prevent escalation. 

 

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and co-editor of “Anti-Satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations.”