Real Star Wars: US Suspects Beijing of Double Game in Space

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Where China claims to have proposed a treaty to keep space free of military weapons, the U.S. sees a shrewd ploy that allows the communist nation to keep developing land-based anti-satellite weapons while playing the part of a supporter of disarmament.

That's one conclusion from a recently published paper by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), which analyzed China's position on two space-related agreements -- one put forward by China and Russia, and the other proposed by the European Union and backed by the U.S. 

Surprising no one, China prefers its own version, and the U.S. analysts suspect there's a pragmatic, realpolitik strategy at play, rather than a healthy fear of the Death Star.

"China has pursued a robust and comprehensive array of counterspace weapons, including ground-launched ASAT [anti-satellite] missiles, ground-based directed energy weapons, ground-based satellite jammers, computer network operations, and co-orbital ASAT systems," the paper says. "The PPWT [the China- and Russia-proposed treaty] is ideal for preserving these capabilities: it would allow China to continue developing and deploying ground-based counterspace assets, testing ground-based weapons against its own spacecraft even if such tests created debris, and testing ground-based weapons against foreign spacecraft so long as these tests did not inflict physical damage."

The analysts at the USCC also allege that "despite Beijing’s expressed preference for a treaty that would ban weapons in space, researchers at its government institutions are thus developing means to put effective weapons onto satellites."

For some background, in 2008 China and Russia jointly proposed to the United Nations a draft version of what's called the PPWT, but which has a very long official title: Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force in Outer Space against Outer Space Objects. The PPWT primary focuses on weapons specifically based in space and does not address the ground-based systems the U.S. is so worried about.

Another problem, U.S. diplomats say, is that the PWTT does not include a legally binding verification system "for effectively monitoring and verifying compliance." It also does not prohibit the development and production of such weapons on earth, meaning any country would be constantly on the verge of a "break-out" capability, should they suddenly abandon the agreement.

Recently the former number two man at the National Security Agency, Chris Inglis, was speaking to Code and Dagger about a hypothetical cybersecurity agreement with Russia, but his sentiment could likely apply to U.S. suspicions in this case:

Inglis said the U.S. would do better not to agree to any “norms” should anything like the deal come to pass, since it would likely “handcuff the party that’s honest and allow free reign to the party that’s not.”

Instead, also in 2008, the U.S. backed the European Union efforts to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities which would be an agreement between parties independent of the U.N., would not be legally binding like the PPWT and would specifically "recogni[ze] that space activities and capabilities, including associated ground and space segments and supporting links, are vital to national security and to the maintenance of international peace and security."

"In contrast [to the PPWT], the United States is convinced that outer space challenges confronting the international community can be addressed through practical, near-term initiatives. Outer space transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) offer a pragmatic, voluntary approach to addressing near-term concerns for outer space security and sustainability," the U.S. delegation to the U.N.'s Conference on Disarmament said in 2016.

Both proposed agreements have been updated since their 2008 introduction, but neither has been adopted. In 2014, the U.N.'s Disarmament Committee voted 126 to 4 in favor of a resolution that encouraged the General Assembly to get to work on the China- and Russia-backed treaty. The U.S., along with Israel, Ukraine and Georgia, were the "no" votes.

As far as China goes, the USCC analysts believe even the lengthy debate over policy could be part of the strategy.

"In light of its approach to other major international disputes, Beijing should be expected to continue diplomatically promoting the non-weaponization of space, advocating for the PPWT, and engaging in negotiations on the Code, while nevertheless continuing to develop its own space weapons, the report says. "Further, given its history, China may not seek an agreement or adhere to its commitments—Code or treaty—given the value it places on military counterspace capabilities. Should these interests remain unchanged, China’s preference for the status quo should be expected to continue."

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