Over the past several months, as China began building its own space station in low-Earth orbit and collaborating with Russia on an asteroid mission and new lunar base, some in the United States have expressed concerns that a new space race is on. Cold War-style rhetoric has cropped up in media reports and government statements alike—and not for the first time. The establishment of the U.S. Space Force in 2019, for example, was largely justified as a response to the alleged weaponization of space by China and Russia, both of which in turn saw the new American military branch as a threat to peace.
Yet the geopolitics of space today are far more complex than this “Cold War 2.0” narrative would make them seem. Today, more than 70 nations have space programs, including 14 with the capacity to launch from their own territories. Moreover, in what has been known as “NewSpace” for some time now, commercial players are leading the pack, building and innovating faster than government programs.
Access to space has become far cheaper and easier—and more appealing—than it was just a decade ago. Space-based technologies are an integral part of modern life, used for communications, navigation, weather and climate tracking, disaster response, banking and finance, and so much more. Militaries rely on the space domain for those same purposes, as well as for intelligence gathering, targeting and the deployment of weapons on land, at sea and in the air. All of this has made space a lucrative commercial sector, estimated to be worth $423 billion in 2021, and it is one of the few industries that has expanded during the coronavirus pandemic. Most countries in the world are users of space-based services, so it stands to reason that every country wants to be a part of this economy.
All of these factors have led to a significant ramp up in activity in space. Australia, the African Union, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Turkey and the UAE have all demonstrated new or renewed space capabilities and are forming new partnerships across borders. Four countries—Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the UAE—have announced plans to send robotic explorers to the moon by the end of this decade, while newer entrants into the civil space sector, like New Zealand, are transforming the industry by developing and selling cheaper and more efficient technologies. Commercial players are also making significant strides. Recent news of progress from the spacecraft companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic indicates that the new era of human spaceflight is already upon us—albeit only for the super-wealthy.
The geopolitics of space today are far more complex than the prevalent “Cold War 2.0” narrative would make them seem.
Every nation has a right to access and make use of space, and the possibility of expanding our presence there has reignited public imagination. But this unmediated flourishing of activity comes with governance challenges that pose enormous risks to the safety, security and sustainability of the crowded space domain. As political and military tensions mount, the newest entrants to the final frontier cannot afford to join the major space powers in a race to the bottom.
A Dangerously Crowded Field
In 2019, India—a new, leading space power—launched a test of an anti-satellite weapon, or ASAT, destroying one of its own satellites with a missile. In the process, it demonstrated how, beyond asserting scientific and economic power, competition in space has great dangers.
The test took the world by surprise, as did the Indian government’s public statements, which framed the maneuver as proof that India had successfully joined the “elite club” of superpowers with ASAT technology—namely China, Russia and the U.S. That messaging was controversial, because all three of those powers had denied conducting ASAT tests. ASAT capabilities are seen as inherently destabilizing, as they create a general perception that states need to protect themselves by developing even more counterspace capabilities, including weaponization, thus triggering an escalatory cycle. When China shot down a defunct weather satellite in 2007, it claimed it was testing a form of debris removal. In 2008 the U.S. shot down an unresponsive military satellite, claiming it was doing so to “reduc[e] the risk to human life on Earth” by preventing it from spilling hazardous material during a dangerous freefall.
In contrast, India celebrated its ASAT test. It also came under fire because the test produced around 400 pieces of space debris, some of which threatened the International Space Station. China’s 2007 test was even worse, creating 2,000 trackable pieces, the most debris from any single incident. Both incidents provoked an international shaming, with NASA’s chief at the time, Jim Bridenstein, characterizing India’s ASAT test as “a terrible, terrible thing” that is “not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.”
Space debris poses an enormous threat to the equipment upon which space services depend, as the trajectories of these fragments are nearly impossible to predict. According to the European Space Agency, there are already about 128 million pieces of debris in Earth’s orbit that range from the size of a bus to the size of a fleck of paint. Most of this traffic is in low-Earth orbit, where objects travel at 7 kilometers per second, rendering them potentially lethal to satellites and spacecraft.
Adding another layer of complexity is the burgeoning problem of space traffic management. There are approximately 3,500 operational satellites currently orbiting the Earth, some 1,897 of which are American-owned. SpaceX owns nearly one-third of all operational satellites, and has been adding more every two weeks, launching 40 to 60 satellites at a time to build its Starlink network. Its aim is to build a “mega-constellation” of 40,000 small satellites that will provide high-speed internet globally. Its competitors—Kuiper in the U.S., OneWeb in the U.K. and StarNet from China—plan to add a combined 23,200 more to create their own “mega-constellations.” By the end of the decade, the expectation is that there will be 100,000 total satellites orbiting above Earth.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Jan. 19, 2020 (AP photo by John Raoux).
Regulation of these companies is up to the countries in which they are registered, and most governments seem to prioritize competitiveness over safety or sustainability. In the U.S., blanket approvals have been given to SpaceX and Amazon to launch these “mega-constellations,” despite the enormous risks posed. These massive private projects also threaten to squeeze out smaller countries by taking up all available space in the limited set of commercially valuable orbits, violating those countries’ right to equal access to space and its resources.
In short, irresponsible activity by governments combined with the exponential increase in commercial space activity has created massive governance problems with respect to safety and security in space. That, combined with the ramp-up in military activity and escalatory rhetoric may well be bringing us to the brink of conflict.
Keeping Major Space Powers in Check
With these challenges, though, come opportunities. In the same way that, in terrestrial affairs, smaller states can leverage great power rivalry to accrue more influence, set agendas and mediate disputes, in space, too, they could be effective space diplomats, helping to stabilize the politics of space and ensure the safety, security and sustainability of this critical strategic domain.
One key area in which small nations can have a large impact is in deescalating the space arms race. In addition to the four competing powers that have tested kinetic ASATs, many other countries already use covert counterspace technologies to disrupt satellite systems, including by jamming their signals or sending false ones, attacking them with cyber weapons, or dazzling their observation instrumentation. None of these interferences are unlawful, but like ASAT capabilities, they are generally considered destabilizing.
Irresponsible activity by governments, combined with the exponential
increase in commercial space activity, has created massive governance
problems in space.
It’s helpful here to dispel a misconception about the militarization of space, which was militarized from the very beginning of the space age. The earliest satellites in the 1960s and 1970s were military technologies that provided new possibilities for intelligence and surveillance, and that continues to be the case. But early weapons tests by both the Soviets and the Americans proved to both sides that there is no way to contain the effects of nuclear or kinetic weapons in space—one’s own satellites are just as affected by attacks as those of one’s adversary. In large part, this is what led to the negotiation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, in which these competing powers readily agreed to prohibit space-based nuclear weapons and the establishment of military bases in space; to keep the moon and other celestial bodies for exclusively peaceful purposes; and to exclude claims of sovereignty over, or appropriation of, celestial bodies. Space was declared to be the province of all humankind, and activities in space were to benefit all nations, “irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.”
These lofty principles have remained stable for more than 50 years. There have been times of tension, but generally, a shared understanding has prevailed that strategic restraint was in the interests of all. Unfortunately, governments have moved away from this peaceful posture in recent years, leading to destabilization and rising fears that a potential future conflict would extend into space.
The U.S. Space Force, created in December 2019, is unique in the world because it is an independent branch of the armed forces, but China has a centralized military space unit, and in the past two years, centralized space commands have been established in Australia, France, Germany, India, Japan and the U.K. While this may be prudent in terms of strategic decision-making, managing capabilities and working with allies, these smaller nations must ensure their space doctrines are focused not on winning their own future battles in space, but on maintaining peace and stability there.
The Urgency of Space Diplomacy
These issues are urgent, but global governance mechanisms are slow. The U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or COPUOS, was established in 1959 to address issues like this, and it did so successfully between 1967 and 1979, when it hosted negotiations for the five core treaties of space law, including the Outer Space Treaty. Since then, though, it has become more difficult to move agenda items along in COPUOS with any speed, due in large part to its consensus-based decision-making process.
But that doesn’t mean progress is impossible. In 2019, COPUOS adopted a set of Guidelines on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities. Although the process of creating and adopting it took nearly a decade, the document that emerged has a lot of political weight. The real impact of these guidelines will be in the national implementation of its suggestions into domestic space policies and licensing laws—and this is where small and middle powers can be particularly influential.
Chinese astronauts prepare for liftoff at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, China, June 17, 2021 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).
The U.K. has already taken the lead as a space diplomat by partnering with the United Nations to fund the promotion of space sustainability and encourage other nations to fully implement the guidelines. The more countries that do the same, the more the guidelines will become embedded as best practices and, eventually, norms. And the same is possible in other arenas, too. Transparent communications and data-sharing, for instance, will be vital to preventing conflicts, because they reduce the chance that benign activity in space could be perceived as hostile and provoke a conflict. As more countries—no matter how small—practice transparency, the more stable and secure space will be.
Smaller countries are also already having an impact in the realm of space arms control, where a long-standing stalemate has prevented progress. China and Russia have co-sponsored various drafts of a space arms control treaty in the U.N. Committee on Disarmament, another consensus-based body, but the U.S. and many of its allies and partners have refused to engage, citing the lack of a clear definition of “space weapon” and of a verification regime, and the fact that only space-based weapons would be prohibited and not ground-based anti-satellite weapons, which pose a much greater threat. A Group of Governmental Experts that convened in 2019 to discuss the potential for a space arms control treaty was similarly blocked by the U.S.
These stalemates eventually pushed the U.K. to sponsor U.N. General Assembly Resolution 75/36 on “reducing space threats,” which was adopted in December 2020—succeeding precisely because the General Assembly is not consensus-based. The enormous support for this resolution, followed by the declarations filed by states in response to its adoption, demonstrate a strong political will to make progress on this issue.
Smaller states could
be effective space diplomats, helping to stabilize the politics of space
and ensure the safety, security and sustainability of this critical
The resolution is not in itself a panacea, but it creates an opportunity for an aligned bloc of small and middle powers to take the lead on articulating norms. They could start by pushing for a treaty that prohibits kinetic, debris-creating ASATs and ASAT tests. Because the risks posed by debris are understood by all, it may be easier to reach an agreement on a treaty that uses this baseline rather than a more extensive ban. Some support for this approach has already emerged since Resolution 75/36 was adopted, and as those efforts move forward, smaller nations could play a significant role in nudging the reluctant greater powers to cooperate.
Human activity in space, as it is right now, is unsustainable. We are all increasingly dependent on space—a tendency that will only increase throughout the 21st century—so it is imperative that all states think long-term and consider strategic impacts beyond their immediate national interests. Smaller space-faring countries could be a powerful force here, by working to foster a new culture of space diplomacy, coupled with a stronger commitment to rules-based order in space. Otherwise, as competition escalates and rhetoric turns icy, collision and conflict are disturbingly likely.
Cassandra Steer is a mission specialist with the Australian National University Institute of Space (InSpace) and a senior lecturer at its College of Law.
This Article firstly Publish on www.worldpoliticsreview.com