Written by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan.

Efforts to establish international norms for outer space activities have been increased in the recent years. Some of the major initiatives include the EU-initiated International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC), the Russia-China proposed draft Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), and China’s proposal for Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).

The ICoC has been particularly significant recently, with the EU engaged in bilateral, regional and global efforts to enlist greater support for its Code. Even as the EU has strengthened its efforts, one cannot say with certainty that the result has been totally satisfactory. There are still many countries that see the EU-proposed measure as problematic owing to a number of issues.

Though many Asian countries are still withholding their support for the ICoC, it is important for the EU to bring them on board if the mechanism is to be an effective one. The region is important because Asia is where the future challenges for outer space governance are going to come from. Most of the new entrants into the outer space domain are also going to come from Asia and Asia already houses established space powers India, China and Japan. Despite these realities, Asian countries did not have any major role in the consultative phase when the EU was prepared the Code. This has given rise to skepticism about the Code among these countries.

India is a good example of these attitudes. New Delhi feels that despite being an established space power, the EU did not make the effort to engage India early in the process. India is interested in establishing norms of responsible behaviour that would bring about certain restraints as well as shape activities in outer space. India would also want to be acknowledged as one of the established space powers, wanting to exercise a say in how the rules of the game are being written. So there were good reasons why India would have been sympathetic to the EU Code. To that extent, the EU lost an important partner whose whole-hearted endorsement could have helped shore up the much-needed support from many other developing countries. However, India’s position on the Code has come a long way in the last two years, from initially rejecting it to today’s active engagement with the EU and the US.

China too has had issues with the ICoC, one on account of the process, and two, because of substantive issues with the Code. At a fundamental level, China, Russia and a few other countries have criticized the Code for covering both the peaceful and security aspects of outer space activities. These countries have argued that the ICoC should be restricted to only peaceful uses of outer space activities and accordingly the ICoC should be modified to reflect this. On the other hand, the EU and a host of countries, including India and Japan have felt the need for a more comprehensive instrument, encompassing both the civilian and military aspects of outer space activities. Given the dual use potential of space technology, it is difficult to make a clear separation between peaceful and military assets and functions. The need for a comprehensive mechanism given many countries’ use of civilian space assets for military-driven functions and utilities.

China has also been critical of the reference to the right to self- or collective-defence in the ICoC. Even though this did not form a major issue of contention in the initial discussions, lately China and Russia have resisted this reference in the Code. Strangely, the right to self-defence is an important aspect in the Russia-China proposed draft PPWT though the duo has strong reservations to this being in the Code. But China and Russia assert that the PPWT is an arms control mechanism where the ICoC is a transparency and confidence building measure (TCBM) and that TCBMs should not have such references.

China has also remained critical of the ICoC’s emphasis on information sharing regarding national space policies and strategies, including objectives for security-related policies.  Beijing has been categorical that it will be “impossible” to share such information. Many countries, including China, have also called upon the EU to move the ICoC development process to a more multilateral platform such as the United Nations (UN).

Lastly, China has stated that it will not agree to any mechanism that will potentially affect its capacity development in the military space domain. Beijing is also averse to identifying space debris as a major issue confronting sustainable use of outer space. On the other hand, China continues to insist that weapons in outer space are a bigger challenge. While this can be debated, the fact is that space debris is an issue that is already affecting the functioning of many civilian space assets. Most recently, Ecuador’s first and only satellite, Pegasus, was hit by space debris. There has been some effort by international community to deal with space debris, in the form of Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines (published in October 2002), but these remain guidelines and are not mandatory. Therefore, while a number of states have adopted these guidelines, compliance by a large number of states still remains an issue. Anti-satellite (ASAT) tests are one set of issues but equally significant are the end-of-life disposal of satellites, which has not been dealt with in any focused manner.

Looking at other Asian views, Japan was one of the first countries that fully endorsed the ICoC. In January 2012, Hirofumi Katase, Deputy Secretary General, Japan’s Secretariat for Space Policy, made a call for global endorsement, a reflection of Tokyo’s inclination for arms control instruments to deal with security challenges. Australia too has been supportive of the ICoC. Given the long-standing Australian support for TCBMs across nuclear and other such security issues, this was not surprising.

Many of the smaller Asian spacefaring powers are yet to endorse the Code in its entirety. There are both substantial and process-driven issues that hold up these countries in giving support to the Code.  Some may argue that it is more important to have the Asian majors support the Code but one could argue that it is equally significant to have newer spacefaring powers extend support to the Code. Given the global nature of the issue and also that the challenges are increasingly likely to come from Asia, the need for support from these smaller players for an effective mechanism is very real. Of course, the initial miscommunication about the process is still a rallying point for many of these countries, but given the serious nature of challenges, it is time for all the Asian countries to appreciate the utility of an effective mechanism. It will benefit both the developed and the developing world to make some compromises to develop a mutually beneficial and effective space code.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. She served at India’s National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India, from 2003 to 2007. Image credit: CC by Tristam Sparks/Flickr.