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U.S. Presses Ahead On Space Code While China Ignores Us

Posted by Colin Clark on

Omaha: What if you crafted an international nuclear arms agreement and didn’t get all the major nuclear powers to sign on? That’s sort of the position the United States finds itself in as it pursues an international code of conduct designed to encourage international space cooperation to limit space debris and encourage information sharing about potential problems.

Russia, India and the European Union all seem amenable to some sort of voluntary international agreement based on the European Union’s Space Code of Conduct. But China? Not so much.

The State Department official charged with the day-to-day work on this issue, Frank Rose, sat down with me here and made it very clear that China has declined to even discuss the concept, let alone engage in discussions or negotiations about how to implement such an agreement.

Rose said that there have been “no substantive discussions” with China. However, “the U.S. is very interested in having this dialog with China,” he added. Pressed, he conceded that we may not very far. “I think it’s probably unlikely we will change their views,” Rose said.

It’s not for lack of trying that the State Department isn’t getting very far. One year ago, the State Department warned the Chinese that debris from the weather satellite they destroyed in their 2007 anti-satellite test would pass close to one of their own satellites. As I reported at the time, it was never clear to American officials whether the Chinese listened to us or believed us.

And China, Rose said, has not met with State Department officials to discuss the space code of conduct.

Given all that, it is important to note that the United States has not officially decided to pursue and adopt the European Code of Conduct. However, Rose also said he believes the U.S. “is very close” to making that decision — one way or another.The Joint Staff recently completed an analysis of the proposed Code of Conduct, said Greg Schulte, deputy assistant Defense secretary for space policy. Shulte, speaking after Rose at a panel here, said “there are some changes we’d still like to make.” The Pentagon wants to make sure we understand “when the code applies and when it doesn’t apply,” Shulte said. Also, the U.S. needs to “make sure that internally we know when the code applies and when it doesn’t apply.”

Supporters of the code of conduct approach argue that even if China or other major space powers don’t sign on, it will lead them to behave better.

“It is very likely that if the political winds blow towards something like an international code of conduct, China and other countries who do not officially sign on it will still incorporate many of its precepts of best practices, as they wish to be perceived as responsible space actors and also because they recognize that a predictable space environment helps protect their space assets as well; this will result in an end-state of a more stable, safe, and sustainable space environment and thus will help enhance U.S. national security,” said Victoria Samson, head of the Secure World Foundation’s Washington office. Samson is a respected expert on international space cooperation.

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