China is undeniably one of the world’s top players in space these days, with successful missions to the moon and Mars and a solar probe due to be launched soon. Its rise has spurred competition with the U.S.; “Watch the Chinese,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently warned. Given the strategic value the two nations have placed on their space programs, and the political tension that already exists between the countries, the contest over achievements in space is likely to intensify.
Despite the tension, the U.S. and China must figure out a way to cooperate on some, if not all, issues in the use of space. The most critical area is the safety of space infrastructure, where a lack of communication could be damaging and possibly even deadly. This need was highlighted by the recent saga of a near miss between two of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites and China’s in-progress crewed space station. Although the Starlink spacecraft are privately owned, the U.S. government is internationally responsible for their space activities under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
Yet, there are serious barriers to a tête-à-tête—including the fact that some kinds of cooperation are illegal. The Wolf Amendment prohibits NASA from using government funds to engage with the Chinese government and China-affiliated organizations. However, this legislation does not block all cooperative possibilities, such as exchanging orbit information about human-made space objects through agencies like the North American Aerospace Defense Command. In the case of the Starlink satellites, U.S. representatives said they had determined that the spacecraft posed no risk to the Chinese space station. China, however, disagreed, and adjusted the station’s orbit to be safe. Cases like this could be better handled in the future through direct communication.
Both nations will continue to rely on space infrastructure for civil, commercial and national security purposes. The U.S. has 2,944 satellites, more than half of the total number of operating satellites in the world. This means that it has the most to lose from satellite collisions and risks posed by space debris. China also has a large collection, along with plans to send significant numbers of satellites to low-Earth orbit in the next few years. The risks are growing from what the U.N. calls “congested, contested and competitive” space, and it suits both countries’ interests to undertake constructive dialogues on how to keep orbital passages safe.
But the path ahead may not be smooth. The U.S. has accused China of worsening the issue, notably during a 2007 Chinese antisatellite test that created more than 150,000 pieces of space debris. Because everything in orbit is moving so fast, a collision between a small bit of debris and a spacecraft could prove catastrophic. Yet, one year later, the U.S. shot down its own satellite, although this event created fewer and shorter-lived pieces of debris, because the intercept occurred at lower altitude so the pieces burned up more quickly in Earth’s atmosphere.
Despite the acrimony, the two sides appear to agree on some important legal rules applicable to space. For instance, in a recent white paper, China professes to use outer space “for peaceful purposes.” Although this claim is open to interpretation, similar language is also widely used in U.S. space policy documents and even the Space Force’s 2020 doctrine. The fact that there is some ambiguity to the term may be a good starting point for the two countries to embark on a dialogue about whether antisatellite testing, for instance, is a peaceful activity. Although defensive in nature and not an act of war, it can pose threats to others by creating more space debris.
China appears keen to be involved in the international rulemaking process for space under the framework of the United Nations, according to statements in the recent white paper. Realistically, China can achieve this goal only through open and constructive engagement with other stakeholder nations. Promisingly, in February, when asked about the danger posed by the Starlink satellites to the Chinese space station, a Chinese spokesperson expressed willingness to establish a long-term communication mechanism with the U.S. to protect the safety of its astronauts and space station.
But the continuing finger-pointing could hold both countries back. For instance, the U.S. and China recently exchanged diplomatic fire over a U.S. unilateral commitment to stop all antisatellite missile testing. Though the move could seriously reduce the future creation of space debris, the U.S. only did so while blaming Russia and China for their previous tests. Not surprisingly, in response China demanded that the U.S. “fully reflect upon its negative moves in the field of outer space.”
To make real progress, the two countries should adopt a “think big, start small” approach. Because there is a lack of mutual trust between the two sides at this stage, it would be unrealistic to expect an agreement on space safety issues as a whole. By tackling smaller problems, such as rules about communicating when a crewed space station is at risk of collision, the two sides may more easily find common interests and are more likely to work in a cooperative manner. Thus, they can establish mutual trust in this process and, over time, expand their cooperation to other spheres in space.