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Can the U.S. and China Get Along in Outer Space?

Space isn’t just the final frontier. It’s also a possible new frontier for warfare. The United States and China are ramping up capabilities to disable each other’s satellites. A new Stimson Center collection of essays released on Tuesday, Anti-Satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations, explores how developments in space will reflect and shape the mix of competition and cooperation between Washington and Beijing.

Satellites are force multipliers. The Pentagon already depends on them greatly; the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will depend increasingly on them in the future. Satellites back up and enable all U.S. military operations, everywhere, at all times. They help protect soldiers in harm’s way. They provide intelligence, targeting support, damage assessments, communications, early warning, and weather forecasts that are essential for all military missions abroad.

These satellites are as vulnerable as they are invaluable. They cannot be armored like tanks and personnel carriers. A piece of space debris the size of a quarter can serve as an unintentional anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. Its impact could create a mutating, pin-wheeling debris field that will kill other satellites in its path.

Intentional ASAT weapons also exist and cannot be dis-invented. Ballistic missiles, missile defense interceptors, lasers and jammers can be used to temporarily or permanently disable satellites. The PLA is improving and testing ASAT capabilities. The Pentagon is, too. An intensified competition in space weapons and the first-ever use of these capabilities in a deep crisis or a limited war between major powers could have catalytic consequences.

In 2007, the PLA carried out a “hit-to-kill” ASAT test against one of its aging weather satellites, causing the largest, human-made debris field in the history of the Space Age. The following year, the Pentagon demonstrated an agile, sea-based ASAT capability, blowing to smithereens a non-functioning intelligence satellite while entering the Earth’s atmosphere to avoid long-lasting debris consequences.

Beijing called its 2007 ASAT test an “experiment.” The Pentagon justified its 2008 test as necessary for public safety purposes, to prevent harm from the defunct satellite’s toxic fuel. The PLA has carried out subsequent “science experiments” and “ballistic missile defense tests.” There is considerable technical overlap between ASAT and ballistic missile defense applications. The Pentagon has carried out almost 60 missile defense tests in the last decade.

There have been far worse periods of military competition in space during the Cold War, the last being prompted by President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the 1983. Previous space war scares were handled with care because attacks on satellites could trigger a nuclear exchange. Washington and Moscow included protections of monitoring satellites in their nuclear arms agreements, and respected tacit “red lines” against highly provocative acts in space. The SDI led to deep cuts in nuclear forces instead of the weaponization of space.

While not as serious as space war scares during the Cold War, advances in U.S. and Chinese military space capabilities could foreshadow a worsening of bilateral relations. Or they could convince Beijing and Washington to engage in a constructive strategic dialogue. The Obama administration is willing, but Beijing’s new line-up of political leaders, like the one it replaced, still has cold feet.

Not talking about “the Bomb” was too unsettling during the Cold War. Vulnerability was inescapable. Deterrence needed parallel efforts at reassurance to keep the Cold War from becoming hot. Superpower nuclear arsenals were roughly comparable, opening the possibility for deals to be struck.

The U.S. and Chinese nuclear arsenals aren’t in any way comparable, so nuclear negotiations aren’t in the cards any time soon. But Beijing does have ambitious space plans. Its military will become dependent on vulnerable satellites, just like the United States.

Space capabilities, unlike nuclear arsenals, can be the door-opener for a strategic dialogue – if Beijing can shake its wariness of accords that require greater cooperation and transparency. In China, the PLA has out-sized influence on national security decision making – just as Soviet generals did when nuclear arms negotiations began.

The vulnerability of humankind to nuclear exchanges has always been obvious. The vulnerability of satellites – which could have profound consequences for humankind – is not glaringly obvious. Nor is there widespread public consciousness of how warfare in space could have catalytic consequences on Earth.

Beijing, along with Moscow, has proposed a gambit reminiscent of the early Cold War years: a pie-in-the-sky, unverifiable and unenforceable treaty that would ban the threat or use of force in space – but not military developments that would allow improvements in space war-fighting. The Obama administration has endorsed a

European Union-led initiative to establish a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations.

An ambitious space treaty is inconceivable, but an executive agreement setting rules of the road for space could have strategic significance. At present, the Obama administration is too distracted and Beijing is too wary to seize this opportunity.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center.