China is undeniably one of the world’s leading players in space these days, with successful missions to the moon and Mars and a solar probe to be launched soon. Its rise has spurred competition with the United States; “Keep an eye on the Chinese“, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson warned recently. Given the strategic value the two nations have placed on their space programs and the political tensions that already exist between the countries, competition for performance in space is likely to intensify.
Despite the tension, the United States and China must find a way to work together on some, if not all, problems with the use of space. The most critical area is the security of space infrastructure, where lack of communication can be harmful and possibly even fatal. This need was highlighted by the latest saga of an almost accident between two of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites and China’s ongoing manned space station. Although the Starlink spacecraft are privately owned, the U.S. government is internationally responsible for their space activities under the 1967 outer space treaty.
Yet there are serious barriers to a tête-à-tête – including the fact that some forms of cooperation are illegal. Wolf Amendment NASA prohibits using public funds to engage with the Chinese government and China-affiliated organizations. However, this legislation does not block all possibilities for cooperation, such as the exchange of orbital information about man-made space objects through agencies such as the North American Air and Space Command. In the case of the Starlink satellites, US representatives said they had determined that the spacecraft posed no risk to the Chinese space station. China, however, disagreed and adjusted the station’s circuit to be safe. Cases like this could be handled better in the future through direct communication.
Both nations will continue to depend on space infrastructure for civil, commercial and national security purposes. The United States has 2,944 satellites, more than half of the total number of operational satellites in the world. This means that it has the most to lose satellite collisions and risks from space debris. China also has a large collection, along with plans to ship a significant number of satellites to low orbit around the Earth for the next few years. The risks grow from what the UN calls “congested, contested and competitiveSpace, and it is in the interests of both countries to conduct constructive dialogues on how to keep orbital passages safe.
But the road ahead may not be smooth. The United States has accused China of exacerbating the problem, especially under one 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test which created more than 150,000 pieces of space debris. Because everything in orbit moves so fast, a collision between a small amount of debris and a spacecraft can prove disastrous. Still, a year later, the United States shot down its own satellitealthough this event created fewer and shorter pieces of debris because the cutting took place at a lower altitude, so the pieces burned up faster in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Despite the dispute, the two sides appear to agree on some important legal rules that apply to space. For example, in a recent white paper, China claims to use outer space “for peaceful purposes.” Although this claim is open to interpretation, similar languages are also widely used in U.S. space policy documents and even the Space Force’s 2020 doctrine. The fact that there is some ambiguity around the concept may be a good starting point for the two countries to initiate a dialogue on whether anti-satellite testing, for example, is a peaceful activity. Although it is defensive and not an act of war, it can pose threats to others by creating more space debris.
China appears eager to be involved in the international space regulatory process under the auspices of the United Nations, according to statements in the recent White Paper. Realistically, China can only achieve this goal through open and constructive engagement with other stakeholders. Promising enough, when a Chinese spokesman was asked in February about the danger from the Starlink satellites for the Chinese space station, will to establish a long-term communication mechanism with the United States to protect the security of its astronauts and space station.
But continued finger-pointing could hold both countries back. For example, the United States and China recently exchanged diplomatic fire over a United States unilateral obligation to stop all anti-satellite missile testing. Although the move could seriously reduce the future creation of space debris, the United States did so only while blaming Russia and China for their previous tests. Not surprisingly, in response, China demanded that the United States “fully reflects on its negative movements in outer space. “
To make real progress, the two countries should adopt a “think big, start small” approach. Because there is a lack of mutual trust between the two sides at present, it would be unrealistic to expect an agreement on security issues in space as a whole. By tackling minor issues, such as rules about communicating when a manned space station is at risk of collision, the two sides can more easily find common interests and are more likely to work collaboratively. Thus, they can establish themselves mutual trust in this process and over time expand their collaboration to other spheres in space.