Congressmen Randy Forbes of Virginia and Mike Rogers of Alabama convened a hearing on January 28th of their House Armed Services Subcommittees to raise awareness of China’s counter-space capabilities. Members asked thoughtful questions about a genuine strategic dilemma: US satellites are becoming more essential and more vulnerable. What will this mean for US-China relations?

My testimony tried to apply some historical perspective. The United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid a “space Pearl Harbor” despite an intense ideological and geopolitical competition, severe crises and proxy wars, not to mention a nuclear arms race and a space race.

So how did we avoid scrapes in space? Washington and Moscow understood the escalatory potential of hostile actions in space, acknowledged satellite vulnerability, and retained significant capabilities to wage warfare in space, if the need arose. The last two conditions now apply to Washington and Beijing – but this won’t help unless the first does, as well.

What wavelength are China’s leaders on? We don’t know. Nor do we know whether Chinese leaders and the PLA are on the same wavelength. Civilian and military leaders in the United States and the Soviet Union were definitely not on the same page in preparing to negotiate on strategic arms and missile defenses. Eventually, there were many communication channels to discuss nuclear and space issues with the Soviet Union. Over time, veteran observers were able to figure out stratagems, habits, and red lines. Patterns of cooperation were hammered out despite competitive practices.

In space, the United States and the Soviet Union tested anti-satellite capabilities over sixty times. ASAT talks in the Carter administration went nowhere. And yet, Washington and Moscow agreed in 1975 to a docking of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft. We cooperate every day on the International Space Station.

U.S. and Soviet nuclear laboratory officials got to know each other during the Cold War. These working relationships helped to lock down nuclear weapons and fissile material when the Soviet Union imploded. After several scrapes at sea that could have escalated into severe crises, Washington and Moscow signed the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement that established a channel of communication between naval officers. As the Cold War was ending, Washington and Moscow signed another code of conduct for ground and air forces operating in close proximity. These agreements didn’t stop competitive practices or the potential for crises, but they provided mechanisms to prevent incidents from spiraling out of control.

Comparable channels barely exist between the United States and China. There are no bilateral negotiations on nuclear and space issues. There’s a US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, but nuclear and space issues barely figure in these discussions. Congress has disallowed NASA from any bilateral engagement with Chinese colleagues. Nuclear laboratory exchanges have been limited ever since the Congressionally-mandated Cox Commission raised concerns about Chinese nuclear espionage in 1999. (Yes, the same guy who was asleep at the switch as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission prior to the 2008 economic meltdown.)

It’s hard to know what Beijing is thinking or the state of civil-military relations in China without channels of communication. Have Chinese leaders familiarized themselves with their military’s plans or understand the ramifications of the People’s Liberation Army military doctrine, test practices, and exercises? What are China’s intentions in space? How far will Beijing go to press its territorial claims? All good questions that outsiders are poorly positioned to answer.

If the United States and China have scrapes, they will likely be at sea or in space. China’s leaders have no experience in dealing with incidents at sea, and no one has experience in managing the escalatory potential of incidents in space. A US-China Incidents at Sea agreement or a broader regional compact would be helpful. The Obama administration hasn’t championed one. If it did, China’s leadership might not be willing to engage.

The Obama administration has been somewhat more proactive in space. It can endorse an international Code of Conduct drafted by the European Union that would, among other things, create a new channel for consultation and establish a norm against ASAT tests that cause lethal debris fields, like the one carried out in 2007 by the PLA. Dead zones in heavily trafficked orbits in space caused by debris pollution could become as prevalent as dead fishery zones.

Beijing has endorsed the general principle of an international Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations, but hasn’t yet signed up to the European draft. As long as this isn’t a priority for Washington or Beijing, the likelihood of unintended incidents and accidents grows.

Bottom line: Lines of communication, consultation, and agreements can help avoid scrapes between China and the United States. At present, these mechanisms are either nonexistent or insufficient.

Read a related post: Apollo-Soyuz Redux?, January 13, 2003. -Ed.