In 2006, the Chinese reportedly used an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) to blind one of our satellites. In 2007, they definitely used an ASAT to shoot down one of their own satellites. Incidents like these led the Pentagon in 2008 and Secretary Gates in 2010 to assert that China’s ASAT program was meant, respectively, to enhance their power projection and to curtail ours.
So naturally — per Eli Lake’s extensive report this morning — the Obama administration is pushing for a U.S./EU agreement that would severely restrict our ASAT capabilities. Experts who back the administration describe it as a “not exactly binding” minor move, the upshot being that Obama wouldn’t have to secure Senate approval for the measure. But experts and congressional staffers both insist that it would significantly curb what we can do in space and would endanger our ability to develop and deploy both offensive and defensive assets:
[A] congressional staff member said: “There is a suspicion that this is a slippery slope to arms control for space-based weapons, anti-satellite weapons and a back door to potentially limiting missile defense.”… “Because it appears that they are talking about limiting operations … it could be that this is as much an agreement on the law of war as it is on arms control,” Mr. Spring [a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation] said. “If it is something more like a law-of-war agreement, then you are creating a situation of legal jeopardy for a military commander who is responsible for operating systems in space.”
Presumably, the argument is that if we give up ours, they’ll give up theirs. The muddy, cascading norms argument is always trotted out when people push for unilateral disarmament, which is what opposing space militarization means in an age of Chinese ascendancy. In a full-blown movement, you’ll find the argument buttressed by everything from “at least our side won’t be complicit” moral preening to “it’ll snowball into a global movement, then there won’t be any more sides” activist nonsense. But it’s always there, in part because we have a surplus of foreign-policy experts churning out implausible advantages for their pet policies — and then selling those fanciful pretexts as objective evaluations.
If stopping Israeli construction in a particular Jerusalem neighborhood can placate Afghanis who’ve never seen a map of Israel, is it too much to suggest that unilateral Western gestures on space militarization will cause Beijing to abandon its ASAT program?
Turns out, there’s an answer to that:
The State Department has exchanged language with the EU on the code of conduct. The U.S. and Russia also have begun talks about creating confidence-building measures regarding space-based activities. The U.S. has reached out to China on space issues, but Beijing has declined offers to discuss the issue, according to a senior State Department official. [emphasis added]
Disappointing to be sure, but I’m sure there’s still something else we can give up that would swing them.