Space Code of Conduct: Toward a New Beginning

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Ensuring security, safety and sustainability has become the new mantra for many spacefaring nations in the 21st century. The presence of space debris is viewed as a major threat to satellites in orbit. For the last couple of years, states are undertaking precautions like adjusting the altitudes of their satellites to avoid collisions (even the international space station is forced to take such actions). Also, the world’s rapidly changing geopolitical and geostrategic landscape is making the possibility of counterspace operations and weaponization of outer space more real.

Under these circumstances, various powers are in agreement on the need to devise a mechanism that could protect the security of space assets and disincentivize any wrongdoing on the part of states or even nonstate actors.

Interestingly, since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, attempts have been made to establish a legal regime for activities in space. However, most efforts have been narrowly focused on specific issues such as astronaut rescue agreements and liability agreements. The Outer Space Treaty that came into being in 1967 was more about the use of weapons of mass destruction in space than about the core space issues.

In view of all this, the European Union (EU) has launched a multilateral diplomatic process to discuss and negotiate an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities with the aim of bringing more transparency into the system. The negotiations on this code are to begin in October with adoption by 2013.

Past experience with negotiations, particularly in the nonspace arena — nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; arms trade agreements; landmine bans; etc. — indicates that such negotiations are intricate processes. In the outer space arena, only a few states have succeeded in establishing themselves as major powers, while a few others are new entrants. There is a significant amount of interdependence in space because the wherewithal to launch satellites is available with a limited few and other states depend on them for launches or satellite-derived services. States have also understood the military importance of space technologies, particularly after their successful use in the 1991 Gulf War.

The space arena at the global level is witnessing both cooperation as well as competition. In the field of missile defense there are major differences between the United States and EU on one hand, and Russia and China on the other. Under this milieu it was probably thought wise not to have an overambitious idea of a space treaty. Hence the idea of a space code of conduct has been muted to make it acceptable to many.

The code of conduct to address issues related to space safety and security should be viewed as an important first step toward bringing some understanding in the space field. It is important to bring together on one platform not only spacefaring states but also those from regions like Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia where an increasing number of states are making or keen to make investments in the space arena.

The basic lacunae with the draft code of conduct are that it is too broad in nature and a totally voluntary and nonbinding mechanism. It has all noble aims, such as endorsing best practices and undertaking confidence-building measures. However, it expects voluntary disclosures from the states about their existing and future space agendas. The question is, will that sort of arrangement work in the 21st century?

Over last few years it has been observed that some of the activities happening in space are making various states uncomfortable. Some are using satellite launches as camouflage to demonstrate their missile ambitions. Others, such as Japan, have made amendments in the civilian nature of their space program due to strategic factors. China’s 2007 anti-satellite test ended up creating a significant amount of space debris. This surprise test helped China to demonstrate its anti-satellite capabilities but also probably provoked the U.S. to demonstrate its “might”: In 2008, the U.S. smashed the defunct USA-193 spy satellite as it fell from orbit. Also, the mystery of the U.S. X-37B robotic spaceplane, which returned from space June 16 after 15 months in orbit, is still unresolved, and the U.S. is not ready to give any information about its mission. All such incidents challenge the efficacy of voluntary mechanisms in the proposed code of conduct.

It appears that there has been a major fear among many states that the U.S. may not join any binding mechanism process and hence the code of conduct is being lobbied without any binding provisions. However, it is important for all states to appreciate that after so many years some seriousness in deciding a legal structure in the space arena is required, and canvassing for a structure like the proposed nonbinding code of conduct is just providing lip service to the cause of space security. There is a need to negotiate hard and get the U.S., Russia and China on the same page.

It is important to appreciate that the age of idealism is over. Various states are bound to take positions to secure their own interests. The real test for diplomacy is to manage a solution that is both acceptable and binding. The complexity of the problem indicates that it could be difficult to reach to a solution initially, but that should not be taken as an excuse to agree to a weak solution.

Ajey Lele is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.