Trump calls for Space Force while nations talk space peace

GENEVA • On the surface, this looks like a terrible moment for the world's major military powers to negotiate a deal on preventing an arms race in space.

Last month, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres warned that the global disarmament architecture was "collapsing", citing various diplomatic failures, including Washington's decision to scrap a crucial nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has drafted plans for a new Space Force on orders from US President Donald Trump, who has declared space a "war-fighting domain".

Despite those headwinds, experts from 25 countries - including China, Russia and the United States - open a 10-day meeting in Geneva today, aiming to lay the groundwork for a treaty to keep space peaceful.

Even against the grim diplomatic backdrop, experts said there may be reasons for optimism.

"I hope I am not just indulging in wishful thinking here, but I do see some positive initiatives against this rather dark background," said Mr Paul Meyer, Canada's former disarmament ambassador and an expert on space security at The Simons Foundation in Vancouver.

The closed-door Geneva talks involve a UN panel called the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE).

Diplomatic efforts to forge a space treaty have been deadlocked for more than a decade. A main problem, experts said, is that China and Russia have insisted on preventing certain devices from being deployed in space.

Chaired by Brazil's ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament, Mr Guilherme de Aguiar Patriota, the space GGE works on consensus and will issue a report only if all parties agree on its content.

Diplomatic efforts to forge a space treaty have been deadlocked for more than a decade.

A main problem, experts said, is that China and Russia have insisted on preventing certain devices from being deployed in space.

This has been a non-starter for the West, which has instead favoured language that emphasises behaviour or actions in outer space that could be restricted.

Mr Patriota said the level of dialogue at the first GGE meeting in August last year was "several notches" better than in the past, with China and Russia indicating an openness to new ideas.

At this week's second and final meeting, the GGE will try to agree on a list of elements that could form a treaty, he said. He noted that the notion of vulnerability in space could motivate states to move forward.

Despite the rhetoric of a leader like Mr Trump, who boasts of ever-expanding defence budgets, military professionals understand that overwhelming dominance is not enough to protect a nation's space assets, experts said.

"Asymmetrical capabilities are big," Ms Jessica West, project manager of the 2018 Space Security Index report, told AFP. "It is very difficult for any (nation) to defend their assets in space alone."

Mr Meyer, former head of the intelligence bureau at Canada's Foreign Ministry, told AFP that another factor creating diplomatic momentum is that space "is no longer just a rich man's club". Dozens of countries, including developing nations, now operate satellites and that list will only grow, he said.

Space technology - whether related to reconnaissance, mapping or navigation - has also become an integral part of both military and civilian everyday life.

The question governments face is "where are the best interests of the nation served?" Mr Meyer said.

"Is it in sparking a further arms race relating to this very vital environment for global prosperity... or is it in making an effort to devise arrangements with some of your potential adversaries", to keep space peaceful, he added.

Mr Patriota conceded that Mr Trump's move last August to create a new military branch dedicated to space hangs over the talks. But US participation so far had been constructive, he added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2019, with the headline 'Trump calls for Space Force while nations talk space peace'. Print Edition | Subscribe