A Starry Spotlight: Geopolitics in outerspace

On June 7 last summer, Russia threatened to leave the International Space Station (ISS) if the US did not lift certain sanctions. Otherwise, Russia would develop its own space station. In December 2019, two years before, President Trump signed a bill that would establish the U.S. Space Force. This would be the sixth branch of the U.S. military.

These striking developments reveal a new stage for geopolitical struggle: outer space. “The prospect of armed conflict in outer space unfortunately appears to be growing”, according to Michael Schmitt, professor of International Law in the UK.

Outer space had already been part of the struggle between the Americans and Russians before. The space race was a prominent part of the Cold War, where there was a competition over which superpower would conquer space first. History therefore seems to repeat itself, you might say. Yet contemporary space politics differ fundamentally from that of the previous century. While outer space and its exploration were mainly trophies to be gained in the overall battle during the Cold War, today this same space is becoming an actual potential battle arena.

With the increasingly developed space technologies, there is also an increasing dependence on space; one that applies to almost all countries. Just to name some examples: on the basis of space stations, crucial research is carried out continuously and the many satellites ensure that people on earth can be in contact with each other 24/7. With this independence comes vulnerability. ‘’Today, the potential of a space attack is as dangerous to us as a nation as the threat of a nuclear attack was in the 20th century,” said Robert Walker in The Hill. According to him, satellites are already chasing other satellites, and several countries and commercial parties have started developing space weapons. An example of this is Mission Shakti, India’s successful weapons test. The weapon managed to destroy one of India’s own satellites during the test. With this, the country joined a list of other countries that already accomplished in the making of such weaponry: China, Russia and the US.

What is interesting to see is that developments and established collaborations regarding outer space are often a direct reflection of the geopolitical situation on planet Earth. “It has been said that space is a lagging indicator for politics on Earth”, said Victoria Samson from Secure World Foundation. New tensions between Moscow and the west, and the ever-growing power struggle between Beijing and Washington DC, led to the development of close ties in several strategic arenas between Russia and China. This Sino-Russian cooperation was made clear on March 9 this year, among other things, when the two signed a memorandum to join forces.

In order to compete with the missions of the United States and its partners, Russia and China have teamed up and made ambitious plans. As a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center stated: ‘’China has an ambitious program, has resources to match it and it has a plan.’’ And Russia, according to him, ‘’needs a partner’’. Although it is not the first time these two countries joined their forces – China’s first astronauts wore Russian spacesuits – the current partnership goes beyond just using a design for suits.

The signed memorandum of understanding on cooperation between Russia and China, includes the coordination of a series of lunar missions and the construction of a permanent research centre on the south pole of the moon by 2030. According to the deputy director of China’s Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, Pei Zhagoyu, Russia’s next three Lunar missions will be carried out with a Chinese series of spacecraft. They are planning to do a robotic mission to an asteroid as well, in 2024.

Because this new stage for geopolitical struggle is relatively new, there is often still a lack of adequate and targeted response. Something that could bring along such a response is appropriate international treaties and laws. There is much debate about whether the existing Outer Space Treaty is sufficiently attuned to contemporary developments. Article IV of this treaty emphasizes the use of outer space for ‘peaceful purposes’, but this does not prohibit military operations in space. It is generally accepted that “peaceful” equates to “non-aggressive,” rather than to “non-military’’, resulting in military objectives still being pursued and conflict is therefore still lurking.

Because of this flaw in International Humanitarian Law, there are countries that argue for new regulations and agreements. The US has expressed its support for an open-ended working group within the United Nations, which will operate from spring 2022. The intention of this group is to discuss norms of behavior and responsibility in space operations. In this way an attempt is made to generate an international consensus on this. The EU also submitted a report to the UN last year, which discusses the need to create standards at an international level, specifically about the deliberate production of space debris that could jeopardize outer space security. Efforts are being made to draw up legally binding agreements on this.

The advanced development in space technologies of our time has led to increasing dependence on outer space – which in turn comes with vulnerability to almost all countries. While the list of countries with weapons to destroy satellites is growing, international laws to regulate this new stage of geopolitical struggle are still lacking. With the US and EU expressing their support for international (legal) bodies for outer space regulation, China and Russia however seem to expand their power by joining forces. Since the prospect of armed conflict in outer space is growing, attention should be drawn to this potentially new battle arena.

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