The past decade has witnessed a fundamental change in the players, ambitions and opportunities in outer space reflecting the dawning of a new era. There has been a revival of an intense space race, this time between the United States and China. The space programme of China, once seen as a distant contender to the US dominance, has now emerged as a formidable challenge to the US. Currently, China boasts the second-largest fleet of spacecraft and is operating numerous constellations of communication, navigation, remote sensing, and surveillance satellites in orbit. China has successfully launched robotic landers and rovers on the Moon and Mars. It has collected lunar samples. China plans to build the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) within a decade and further explore the Moon and deep space. China’s ILRS coalition, comprising seven nations, includes Pakistan.
Last year, the Chinese launch vehicles delivered a record 50 successful missions in a year, sending more than 140 space objects into space. The Chinese space station Tangoing (celestial palace in Chinese), was operationalised in 2022. Six missions related to this station, conducted by Long March vehicles, lifted over 90 tons of payload. Tangoing has been visited by its taikonauts (astronauts). These developments demonstrate that China is now a strong global space power. China’s rise in space technology has raised alarm bells in Washington. David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post wrote in July 2023. “Of all the potential threats that China poses to the United States, the most worrisome… is future domination of space.” He adds that since China’s first test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, it has developed crafts that can snatch space objects and dump them to a distant orbit known as the “graveyard zone.” Their space planes can also capture satellites in orbit. He asserts that Beijing knows that space is the ultimate “high ground” and is determined to control it. Some American experts term it as a “pacing threat” from China.
General B. Chance Saltzman, the chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force, referring to China and Russia, observed in February 2023, “We are seeing a whole mix of weapons being produced by our strategic competitors.” Space Threat Assessment 2023, by the Centre of Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC states that China and Russia are collaborating and integrating space capabilities that will give them the same advantages that the United States currently enjoys. Furthermore, they are developing a strong spectrum of offensive capabilities, at the peril of the United States and its allies, including commercial companies venturing into space.
There is no doubt that the US has been the first to militarise space. At the Conference on Disarmament, the US has consistently resisted proposals for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), including a draft treaty on the ‘Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT)’ proposed jointly by China and Russia in 2008, and updated in 2014. The space programmes of the United States are a mix of government organisations and commercial companies like SpaceX’s Starlink, Maxar and dozens of other “New Space” companies engaged in developing networks of commercial communications and surveillance in low-Earth orbit. The Pentagon is reportedly partnering with more than 130 such companies. Within its Artemis Accords, the U.S. and its thirty-two partners, including India, have set the goal of exploring the Moon and then traveling on to Mars. One of the main goals of the Artemis program is to build one or more bases near the moon’s South Pole.
The global economy and societies have become heavily dependent on space infrastructure for everyday life in a myriad of ways. For example, GPS satellites not only allow for safe navigation in air, land and sea, but they also underpin data transmissions and financial transactions. Most space-based technologies are dual use entailing huge risks. Cyber-attack capability in space alone can jam or disable satellites, rendering them ineffective for communication, navigation, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Harm could reverberate across the expanding space economy.
Today’s strategic environment is complex. Space is becoming central to this complexity. To ensure peaceful uses of space, it is essential to develop a legally binding framework of governance of different aspects of space. Well-considered space laws and governance rules are necessary to fill the existing yawning legal gaps in the Outer Space Treaty. Such a course is necessary for mitigating risks, encouraging innovation and fostering transparency, confidence-building and the interoperability of space. The UN Secretary General’s policy brief “For All Humanity – the Future of Outer Space Governance”, offers a timely reminder to regulate space governance.