Tuesday, October 15, 2013

China as a Responsible International Actor in Space

IAC 2013 poster c/o IAF.

          by Melissa K. Force 

The 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) was held in Beijing in the last full week of September and the host location offered a rare opportunity for a view of China’s space law and policy. China’s academicians at the IAC revealed attitudes on space sustainability during a seminar on legal aspects of active debris remediation.

These discussions were provided through written papers, oral presentations, power-points, commentary and question and answer sessions by Xiaodan Wu, a postdoctoral fellow at China Central University of Finance and Economics, who evaluated whether China has fulfilled its international obligations in space environment protection, and Guoyu Wang, an associate professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology and a member of China’s delegation to the United  Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) working group focused on the  long-term sustainability of outer space activities.

Despite repeated attempts, none of the Chinese presenters would agree to be quoted by name.

China’s Attitude towards Space Environmental Protection

Generally speaking, China is aware of space debris as a threat to human activities in outer space. There are three aspects to its international position on safe and sustainable development of space.

First, the China National Space Administration actively participated in the discussion on space debris mitigation guidelines as a member of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee in 1995 and later, as part of COPUOS. But China opposes any attempt to make those guidelines binding because of the perceived disparity in the ability (and responsibility) of developed versus developing countries to devote the technology and financial support necessary to implement those measures. Implicit in this view is the culpability (“careless action”) of the United States and Russia for the majority of debris in space.
Chinese rocket boosters as per 2011. Graphic c/o Chinese National Space Administration.
Second, the mitigation of space debris is, in China’s view, strongly tied to international measures to prevent the weaponization of outer space, most recently embodied in a 2008 China-Russia draft “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space” (PPTW). The United States and others objected to the treaty because it is unverifiable and, as Dr. Wu’s paper recognizes, does not explicitly ban debris-generating ground-based direct ascent anti-satellites (that may contain characteristics of missile defense and space warfare – lasing and jamming).

Third, China is unlikely to sign the EU Code of Conduct. Although China agrees that its transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) are important, the EU failed to consult China in the drafting process. Some states believe that rationale is suspect and that, while China does promote the sustainability of outer space, it wants to do so through its own means. Indeed, according to one of the papers, one reason for abstaining from the Code of Conduct is that its goals overlap with those in the UN the Conference on Disarmament and the PPWT. Though the PPWT remains unsigned, China’s soft power within the UN framework has been enhanced, especially among non-space faring states. Although none of the Chinese academicians addressed this aspect of politics, a Code of Conduct could weaken PPWT and signing it would not benefit China’s geopolitical interests.

China’s Domestic Regulation of Debris Mitigation

China first established a national mechanism governing space debris mitigation in 2002, with “Interim Provisions on Licenses for Civil Space Launch Projects” and later in 2005, with “Requirements of Space Debris Mitigation.” Since 2008 there has been a supervisory mechanism for the mitigation of space debris during development, operation and post-mission disposal of spacecraft and launching vehicles through the auspices of the space industry, research institutions and governmental organs.
But there is a smudge on China’s credibility that is difficult to reconcile. In 2007, China executed an ASAT weapon test that generated more than 3,000 pieces of debris, representing more than one-fifth of all cataloged objects in Low Earth Orbit. Although Chinese presenters were understandably reticent about commenting on that incident due to the potential for tension between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the military, the ASAT test was denounced in the international community as violating Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty, in which states pledge not to interfere with the operations of other states and to consult when action might lead to interference.

Subsequently, a provisional regulation (“Interim Measures on Administration of Mitigation of and Protection against Space Debris”) was put into practice in 2010 (and summarized to the UN Working Group on national legislation in 2013) to fulfill China’s international obligations to establish coordination, emergency management and surveillance mechanisms. However, considering that China’s leaders ordered the ASAT test despite the existence of official regulations prohibiting it – including its 2002 and 2005 space debris mitigation mechanisms – the international community might well doubt that the 2010 Provisional Regulation would be any bulwark against future violations. This regulation has not been published (other than in a generalized summary to the UN) and, as a purely a governmental document, it is not legally binding.
Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space after her 2012 space mission. Ten Chinese taikonauts have currently flown in space. Photo c/o Quirky China News/Rex Features.
Scholars would only publicly acknowledge that China’s leaders “underestimated” the intensity of the international reaction, and explained it solely on the ground that the subject of debris “had not figured prominently in the briefings to the Chinese leadership” prior to ordering the ASAT test.

 But since 2007 China has accelerated the process of translating international agreements into domestic law and is gradually establishing a space debris standards system. The transparency of China’s debris regulations and standards needs to be improved but it appears things are heading in the right direction. Though China is an emerging space power, its status in the international community still feels new and its early missteps were due to an imperfect decision-making process, which is continuing to evolve and improve.
Melissa K. Force.

The takeaway is that China wants to been seen as a responsible member of the family of space-faring nations, especially since it has come to enjoy enhanced recognition for its accomplishments in space and a leadership role in curbing the weaponization of space. In short, China has learned its lesson from 2007 and is making efforts to improve. 
Melissa K. Force is an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School and Webster University, who teaches air and space law. She is also a legal consultant and Principal of MK Force Consulting in Los Angeles who advises commercial entities, government agencies and international organizations on legal, regulatory and policy issues concerning space activities. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, a J.D. degree and an LLM in Air and Space Law.

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