U.S. government officials are correct to dismiss the latest space weapons ban proposed by China and Russia as unacceptable, particularly in light of the fact that China, U.S. officials say, continues to test anti-satellite weaponry.
The updated “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” is, like previous versions, all but impossible to verify, primarily because any maneuverable satellite could double as an anti-satellite weapon. The same goes for long-range ground-based missiles, which aren’t even addressed in the proposed treaty and which, according to U.S. government officials, pose the greatest threat today to satellites in Earth orbit.
Moreover, the proposed treaty puts no restrictions on the development and stockpiling of space-based weaponry, meaning a signatory could position itself to rapidly deploy such capabilities and simply withdraw from the pact.
Russia and China — China earned international opprobrium in 2007 when it deliberately destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-launched missile — are of course fully aware of these realities. Yet they continue to propose the treaty, perhaps for no other reason than to put the United States in the position of having to reject it.
All three countries have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities, but it appears that only China has an active testing program. In July, U.S. government officials assert, China conducted a nondestructive demonstration of a ground-launched anti-satellite missile.
China characterized the event as a successful missile defense intercept test, but U.S. officials, who have access to the world’s most capable space and missile-launch surveillance assets, beg to differ. If their assessment is correct, then China is, at the very least, guilty of talking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to weapons in space.
Because of the military advantages that superior satellite capabilities provide, the United States has the most to lose should Earth orbit become a combat zone. But China has rapidly built up its own space capabilities over the last decade or so, meaning it now has a major, and growing, stake in keeping space free from weapons and warfare.
So does the rest of the world, which relies on satellites for communications, navigation, weather forecasting and other critical functions.
It might be possible to reduce man-made threats to satellites, but the space weapons ban that China and Russia repeatedly offer up before the United Nations is not the answer. A more realistic and effective approach would be to adopt a so-called code of conduct, as proposed by Europe and the United States, that would reduce the chances of accidental collisions in space or misunderstandings that could escalate into deliberate attacks on satellites.
If China and Russia are truly serious about making space a safer place, they should publicly endorse the code of conduct, or some variant thereof. In doing so they would score points in the global diplomatic arena while putting pressure on the United States and Europe to redouble their efforts, which seem to have stalled of late, to get other nations on board.
In the meantime, China, which clearly aspires to be a leader in space, should refrain from anti-satellite demonstrations that only undermine its credibility while putting the rest of the spacefaring world on edge.