New circumstances, new approaches

By Wu Chunsi, July 27, 2015

In the second round, Nancy Gallagher delved into Cold War history with a discussion of US-Soviet interactions regarding antisatellite weapons and arms control logic that prevailed at that time. Gallagher hinted strongly that similar arms control measures should be pursued today—that nations should moderate their interest in developing (and certainly using) antisatellite capabilities and should instead follow the path that Washington and Moscow followed decades ago.

It is understandable that Gallagher and others feel a sense of urgency about reinvigorating international arms control and disarmament efforts, when these efforts have been stagnating for many years. I too generally support maintenance of strategic stability and advances in arms control—but at the same time, it's important to note that today's relations between the United States and newcomers to space differ from long-ago US-Soviet relations.

First—as Bharath Gopalaswamy discussed in his second essay—the United States today enjoys a great asymmetry of power in outer space. This asymmetry complicates arms control calculations. The United States, because of its supremacy, might have little interest in restraining its actions in space. Newcomers to space, because of their relative weakness, are likely to exercise great vigilance about protecting their right to further development. So asymmetry of power polarizes national positions and makes reconciliation difficult.

Second, many newcomers to outer space, notably China and India, are very different from the United States in cultural terms. The United States and Soviet Union differed sharply on ideological questions but could assume a reasonable degree of cultural familiarity—people on both sides, for example, are usually comfortable expressing their preferences in very direct terms. In Asian countries this is less often the case. So the United States is sometimes left guessing at China's true intentions, assuming the worst, and reaching incorrect conclusions. One situation in which this dynamic comes into play is when China greets US proposals with silence. Silence may mean that, though China disagrees with the proposal, it nonetheless wishes to leave open the possibility of cooperation (while avoiding public opposition). But the United States can easily interpret Chinese silence as a simple unwillingness to cooperate—the opposite of what China intends. Cultural issues such as these must be kept in mind when arms control arrangements are designed. Simply following the model of US-Soviet engagement will probably not achieve desired results.

Third, the landscape in outer space has changed a great deal over the decades. Space has become more crowded. Many more countries today have the technological wherewithal to engage in space activities, and it seems inevitable that new actors will master antisatellite capabilities. Amid this changed reality, bilateral arrangements such as those pursued by the United States and the Soviet Union may not be appropriate. A better approach is to pursue multilateral agreements or to work through international institutions.

China understands why some in the international community are calling for a revival of arms control processes surrounding antisatellite weapons and other outer space issues. And China is generally supportive of arms control in outer space. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The real question is not whether individual countries support arms control efforts and desire strategic stability—but rather, how these goals will be pursued, according to which principles, and in pursuit of what priorities. As circumstances change in space, the nature of nations' arms control engagements must change as well. But if the major players fail to reach a clear, common understanding of new realities in space, it will be difficult to establish constructive dialogue.


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