International Cooperation is Good, But China Presents Challenges, Conference Participants Conclude

International Cooperation is Good, But China Presents Challenges, Conference Participants Conclude

During the “Space Day” part of the 3rd Annual Washington, D.C. Space and Cyber Conference of the University of Nebraska’s College of Law, participants considered the implications of the Obama Administration’s National Space Policy and many pointed to its emphasis on international cooperation.

Speaking at the Military Space Panel, Deborah Plunkett of the Air Force’s Office of the General Counsel characterized space situational awareness (SSA) as “the most legally ripe area of cooperation.” Greater cooperation in SSA — wherein satellite operators would have more knowledge of where other satellites and pieces of debris are located in order to avoid collisions — will have to address a number of challenges, including respecting “historic agreements” on data protection, she said.

Bruce MacDonald, who served as Senior Director of the Congressional Commission on Strategic Posture of the United States, agreed that SSA is a viable area of cooperation. MacDonald, who lauded the inclusion of arms control in the National Space Policy as a “good change,” linked SSA with deterrence, which is, in his view, the appropriate goal of the United States in space: “the more countries know they are [being] observed, the more cautious they’ll be.” Plunkett added that the accountability derived from attribution for anti-satellite (ASAT) attacks or other debris-causing behavior “may impact what people do in space.”

Dean Cheng, Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, described that assumption as “interesting,” and cautioned that increased SSA or cooperation in that area may not be so easy with actors like China and may not aid deterrence. What were the lessons for China after the 2007 ASAT test, he asked rhetorically. Instead of suffering from this incident, Cheng explained, China learned that there are no consequences to conducting such tests. When considering China, which he described as “a genuine space power”, he asked if knowing more about the behavior of other actors in space would be deterrence or, considering the “asymmetry of interests” between China and the United States, might serve the opposite role.

With major challenges in U.S.-China relations, space cooperation with China – which was not ruled out as a possibility in the new policy – still may be some time off. When asked about cooperating with China in human spaceflight missions, the Deputy Administrator of NASA, Lori Garver, who delivered the afternoon’s keynote speech, joked “I’m so sorry, that’s all the time we have.” She could only add that just like the inclusion of Russia in the International Space Station, “human spaceflight cooperation will not be a NASA decision.”

Her response echoed Cheng’s earlier comments that “whether we can cooperate in space [with China] depends on whether we can cooperate on the ground” and that “cooperation needs to start with baby steps.” The first challenge may prove to be the United States’ own understanding of Chinese activities and motivations, what Cheng described as its “opacity.” Looking to “problems on the horizon,” MacDonald agreed with this description and said that “China is our biggest concern in space…that China will continue to be opaque.” The hope is, he argued, that by showing China that such a stance is counterproductive, it will become “less opaque, more transparent…at least translucent.”

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