January 23, 2012

Space Code: Potential for US-India Cooperation

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan


As outer space becomes increasingly crowded, it has become clear that
there needs to be some clear rules for regulating activities of
different nation-states in space. Instituting such a code of conduct
on outer space activities has been at the centre stage for the past
few months. The United Nations took the lead in this regard in 2008,
with the General Assembly adopting resolution 62/217, endorsing the
"Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines" of the Committee on the Peaceful
Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The European Union (EU) also proposed a
code of conduct on space, but it has run into rough waters for a
variety of reasons and the EU has not managed to muster much support
for their initiative outside the EU capitals. While the EU needs to be
complimented for its initiative, unfortunately the EU did not
institute a consultative mechanism, which could have brought together
all the major space-faring countries. This has hurt the prospects of
the EU Code.

While India has not taken a formal position on the EU Code,
discussions at informal parleys suggest that India too has concerns.
To start with, India has been concerned with the fact that the EU did
not engage major space-faring powers, including India, in this
exercise. The exclusive approach adopted by the EU in this regard has
made this exercise futile. Second, while the EU Code is a voluntary
and non-binding arrangement, it expects states to establish national
policies that are in sync with the EU guidelines, which may or may not
be in the interests of India. Such measures have been seen as
affecting the legitimate national security interests of other

Similar concerns have been expressed in Washington as well. Most
recently, the US rejected the EU Code on the grounds that it is "too
restrictive." On January 12, Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State
for Arms Control and International Security, made the US position
quite clear on the EU Code saying that "it's been clear from the very
beginning that we're not going along with the code of conduct."
However, she also went on to say that "what we haven't announced is
what we're going to do."

American concerns have ranged from the fact that this non-binding,
voluntary arrangement could restrict the US military's options in
space to the issue of a non-ownership of the code, the document having
been produced by the EU. For instance, in a Senate hearing in May,
Senator Jeff Sessions said, "we've advanced further technologically in
development and actual deployment of these systems than anyone else,
and agreements [and] codes of conduct tend to … constrain our
military." An assessment by the Pentagon's Joint Staff supported this
assessment, stating that the US becoming a party to the EU Code "would
hurt the US military's space operations in several areas." Similarly,
a State Department cable on the subject noted that the US "continues
to have significant concerns about the widespread use of language
connoting binding obligations, such as 'shall' and 'will,' in the
proposed non-binding Code of Conduct."

Having junked the EU Code as too restrictive, the US is now in the
process of working on a new draft, of course, with the EU draft "as a
promising basis for an international Code." US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton in a Press Statement made amply clear the importance
of instituting a code that "will help maintain the long-term
sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by
establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space." The US
intends to join the EU and other countries in developing a code as a
way of strengthening international cooperation while constraining
irresponsible behaviour. However, the US move in this direction has
already come in for criticism from Republicans on the ground that this
is a typical Liberal arms control measure. John R. Bolton, former
Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security,
criticised the new move saying, "the last thing the United States
needs is a space code of conduct. The idea of arms control has already
failed in the Russian 'reset' policy, and it is sure to fail here as
well." Among other criticism, two national security officials
condemned the administration's national security policies as arms
control-driven, which emphasise on concluding international pacts
rather than building its military capabilities.

In sum, while the Obama Administration's interests in instituting a
code for a safe and workable outer space environment is legitimate,
this is an election year and neither the Obama Administration nor any
of the other Presidential candidates will want to commit themselves to
a code, especially when it has not been produced by the US.

Can the new US proposal to write the rules of the road on space be an
area of interest for India? India clearly has interests in laying out
the rules of the road for space conduct but it also has an interest in
being recognised as a major space-faring power whose voice should form
an intrinsic part in creating these rules. India cannot come on board
as a latecomer. In a sense, the "Not Made Here" syndrome probably best
characterises the Indian position on the EU Code. Indian interests are
driven by several factors including the geopolitics of Asia and the
Indian neighbourhood, which is rather hostile. Therefore, it has an
interest in a normative exercise that will reduce China's aggressive
and unregulated behaviour in outer space, best illustrated by their
irresponsible Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test in 2007 that left behind a
huge amount of space debris. Given that space debris, traffic
management and orbital frequency are issues that concern both India
and the US, this ideally should be on the agenda in future US-India
endeavours. New Delhi's broader approach has been to institute an
inclusive and comprehensive approach in addressing space security.

How should India shape the discourse in this regard? As a first step,
it will be in India's interest to produce a backgrounder or white
paper outlining the importance of space in India's developmental and
security calculus. This in turn should lead to identifying what kind
of a space future it would like to see and thereafter identify areas
that would contribute to such an environment while putting in place
measures that would constrain India's ability to help generate such a
future. It might be good for both India and the US if they can engage
in shaping this debate that would give them ownership of the issue.

Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at Observer
Research Foundation, New Delhi. She was at the National Security
Council Secretariat, Government of India, from 2003 to 2007.
By Arrangement with Observer Research Foundation(www.orfonline.org)
19 January 2012

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