Last Sunday, the Washington Post ran my op-ed suggesting that the United States pursue a space Code of Conduct with Beijing, not only to foster norms relating to debris mitigation, space traffic management and purposeful, harmful interference, but also as a door opener for U.S.-China strategic cooperation. This could be a “SALT moment” for Washington and Beijing – an opportunity to begin a difficult process of negotiations – internal no less than bilateral — on matters of strategic importance. I argue that the SALT moment for the United States and China will be about space, not nuclear arms control. To be sure, these domains are linked, but U.S.- China conversations and cooperation are more likely to succeed if we begin with space, rather than with strategic forces.
I use the word “moment” metaphorically. The timing for initiating these discussions isn’t as bad as during the Johnson administration, when the onset of talks with the Soviet Union had to be shelved because of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. By comparison, the timing for U.S.-China talks looks almost propitious, but it’s still not right, what with a presidential election in the United States and a leadership transition in Beijing, not to mention current events on rock outcroppings in the South China Sea.
Next year, the timing might be better — or worse, if Mitt Romney wins the election and listens to his most neoconservative advisers. If President Obama is re-elected, he may find no other strategic initiative on his agenda with greater potential positive impact. So far, however, the Obama administration has treated the space Code of Conduct as small change, without strategic value. Granted, the administration had bigger fish to fry, but still, it took three years to endorse this initiative, and the State Department handed this baton off to the European Union, which fumbled it. U.S. strategic initiatives are usually not out-sourced to the European Union.
A reframing of this issue is in order. Why short-change the space Code of Conduct when concerted efforts will be required for its realization, and when activities in space will characterize the mix of cooperation and competition between Washington and Beijing?