WASHINGTON – The Obama administration in the last six months has seen a greater willingness by China for bilateral engagement on space security issues, a senior State Department official said on Friday.
“I have seen over the last six or seven months a much more active approach with China … on engaging the United States on space security issues. I’ve had some very good top level discussions with senior officials,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy Frank Rose.
The United States foresees an escalating danger to commercial and military satellites as more countries and nonstate actors acquire antisatellite capabilities, Rose said. U.S military orbiters enable secure armed forces communications, early detection of ballistic missile launches, and precise targeting coordinates for weapon strikes.
“It’s clear that space is … increasingly becoming contested,” Rose said. “Today, space systems and their supporting infrastructure face a range of man-made threats that may degrade, disrupt or destroy assets.”
Of particular concern to Washington is China’s developing, multifaceted antisatellite program, he told an audience at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
China surprised the international community six years ago when it used a ballistic missile to destroy one of its old weather satellites. The resulting debris has already smashed into a Russian satellite and is cause for worry for nations that own some of the estimated 1,100 active satellite in orbit.
The 2007 ASAT test and China's follow-up in 2010 are assessed to have involved SC-19 missiles that are a modified version of the Dongfeng 21 ballistic missile with an added kinetic kill vehicle component. The SC-19 could have applications as a ballistic missile interceptor, according to experts.
Washington views bilateral engagement with Beijing on space security as critical. Both world powers have a “long-term interest in maintaining the stability of the space environment, especially limiting the creation of long-lived space debris,” Rose said. “It is important that we discuss these issues bilaterally in order to prevent misperceptions and miscalculations. The United States plans to continue to improve our efforts to discuss these efforts with China.”
About three years ago, the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California detected that a piece of debris from the 2007 ASAT test was on trajectory to collide with one of China’s own operational satellites. The U.S. government alerted Beijing to the development so that it might move its orbiter out of the junk’s path, Rose said.
Rose suggested that such assistance can demonstrate to China the benefits of engaging with the United States on satellite and other space issues.
“I think China is coming to the view as well that it’s important to engage on these issues,” the State Department official said. “The United States believes it is very vital that we have this dialogue.”
Bilateral military talks that touch on strategic concerns such as missile defense occur periodically. Rose did not say when the United States and China might next engage on the issue of space security.
He said there were also positive signs around the drafting of an international code of conduct for space activities. Work on the nonbinding accord is being led by the European Union.