China is at the cusp of its “SALT moment” with the United States. Moscow and Washington were at a similar juncture in 1969, when the strategic arms limitation talks got underway. President Richard Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev decided to try to stabilise a competition in which both superpowers were poised to multiply their strategic offensive forces.
The United States was on the verge of deploying national ballistic-missile defences as well. The odds of success were limited, since neither country had a history of substantive engagement on these issues or of coordinating government positions for complex negotiations of this kind. When the talks began, SALT critics accused US diplomats of negotiating against the Pentagon and with the Kremlin, while military members of the Soviet delegation warned US officials against revealing “secrets” to Russian diplomats.
Nevertheless, in less than three years, Washington and Moscow managed to reach an interim agreement on offensive forces and conclude the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The former was deeply flawed and the latter quickly lost Republican support. Yet these agreements helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot and, in due course, provided the foundation for much deeper and more stabilising nuclear arms reductions.
China’s SALT moment with the United States will not involve nuclear arms control and reduction treaties. US and Chinese nuclear arsenals are too dissimilar in size for negotiations, and Beijing is too sensitive about transparency to negotiate verifiable nuclear restraints, let alone arms reductions. Instead, it will focus on space, where the competition is heating up and the stakes are high. What happens in space will heavily influence whether relations between China and the United States become more dangerous or more cooperative.
The space and nuclear domains cannot be separated, one reason the SALT accords and subsequent treaties between Washington and Moscow contained provisions protective of monitoring satellites.
When superpower space programmes took worrisome turns ‑ such as the Soviet testing of anti-satellite weapons in the 1970s or the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defence Initiative in the 1980s‑ nuclear negotiations either were badly impaired or ground to a halt. When the two governments accepted tacit restraints in space, they were able to reach agreements limiting and reducing nuclear arsenals. China and the United States are becoming more dependent on satellites for national and economic security, and both have demonstrated the ability to destroy them.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used a missile to destroy an aging Chinese satellite in 2007; the Pentagon demonstrated this capability against a failed US intelligence satellite the following year. China’s anti-satellite test, labelled as an “experiment,” created a debris field that will endanger satellites and manned space flight for decades. Washington characterised its test, which did not create a hazardous debris field, as a public safety measure.
Space is becoming crowded with satellites and debris. All major space-faring nations can use ballistic missiles, missile defence interceptors, lasers and jammers to interfere with or destroy satellites. These capabilities provide the basis for mutual deterrence ‑ or for the nullification of the benefits offered by this global commons. The absence of rules of the road in space jeopardises international, national and economic security.
Three sets of rules are particularly important ‑ norms that support debris mitigation, those that support space-traffic management and those that bar purposeful, harmful interference of objects in space. The need for these rules was further highlighted in February 2009, when a dead Russian satellite collided with a functioning US communication satellite.
Norms against reckless behaviour exist on highways, the high seas and in the air ‑ but not in space. A major space treaty is not in the cards because “space weapons” can’t be properly defined and verified: Too many multipurpose technologies and military capabilities can be redirected against satellites. Calling for wide-ranging, unverifiable treaties addressing space is like championing agreements for “General and Complete Disarmament,” just like leaders in Moscow and Washington used to do before they were ready to engage in serious negotiations like SALT.
The Obama administration, the European Union, Japan, Australia and other countries are ready to agree on a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations. China is calling for an unverifiable treaty banning the use of military capabilities in space ‑capabilities that the PLA is hard at work developing. Moscow has aligned itself with Beijing but is now hinting at a more pragmatic approach. A window of opportunity is opening around a code of conduct if China’s leaders can bring the PLA on board, and if Republican leaders can see the wisdom of this initiative.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institution, and is director of its Space Security programme.