Space Cadets… (International Legal Rhetoric Edition)

by Chris Borgen

A while back, I wrote an article on how states use the rhetoric of international law (specifically self-determination) as part of their broader foreign policy initiatives. Li Hong, the Secretary-General of China’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, has an op-ed in today’s China Daily that embeds law-talk (in this case the international law of outer space and multilateralism more generally) in an essay that (I think) is really trying to send a signal about the trend lines of China and the U.S. as space-faring nations.

He starts by invoking international law and multilateralism (in opposition to unilateralism and hegemony):

Since the late 1990s, China, Russia and some other countries have urged the international community to hold multilateral dialogue to prevent weaponization of outer space, and put forward specific proposals for concluding an international treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space.

But the US has been using every reason to refuse negotiating such a treaty for fear that it may restrict it from maintaining and developing its outer space anti-missile system and compromise its space military technology. Some US conservatives are convinced that the US can use its system and resources to maintain its dominance in space and it is unnecessary for it to hold talks with other countries, because they are quite inferior in terms of using space for military purposes. Hence, the US has been emphasizing freedom in the use of outer space. In essence, it wants to establish its hegemony over outer space.

It moves from the law-talk to comparing the current trends in Chinese and American space programs, particularly that

China achieved many a breakthrough in outer space technology such as launching manned space flights, performing [a] spacewalk, establishing the Beidou navigation system [a type of GPS], and conducting anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missile tests. Stung by the financial crisis, the US, however, has been forced to restrict the development of its outer space technology and end its space shuttle program.

And, according to Li, this taints U.S. efforts at cooperation as the

US seeks to cooperate with its allies to integrate and use their resources, which would make up for its lack of investment and help it retain its leadership in space technology. The talks it wants would be focused on its two potential competitors, Russia and China, to regulate and constrain their development and prevent them from challenging US hegemony in space. This is typical Cold War mentality. The US’ eagerness to establish dialogue with China reflects its uncertainty over space security challenges.


As in other instances of using the language of law in the midst of the practice of politics, there’s some careful parsing of language: while China opposes “weaponization” of space, it “has to develop its defense capabilities in space.” Sounds like Ronald Reagan talking about SDI, circa 1984.  And so the essay goes, combining a rhetoric of international legal multilateralism with a sort of space-tech realpolitik, even throwing in some issue linkage along the way (arms sales to Taiwan don’t foster outer space treaties). 

Such use of legal rhetoric in the midst of great power politics can be an attempt to reframe international law or, more modestly, just a try at grabbing the moral high ground. I expect the latter is the case, here. I don’t see any attempts, in this essay at least, to redefine legal concepts. This reads more like an effort to send some signals as to who cares more about international law (China) and who is on a trendline of increasing power (again, China).

One side note:  last year, the Obama administration stated it’s willingness to consider a multilateral space arms control policy. Given that, I look forward to seeing if and how the U.S. responds to Li’s op-ed.

 Hat tip: Spaceports

2 Responses

  1. So China, who in 2007 conducted an anti-satellite test that generated thousands of pieces of debris, the largest and most dangerous cloud of space junk ever produced threatening other satellites and the space projects of other nations, now wants to complain that the US is uncooperative.

  2. Howard:  Actually, I would say that it is in part because of having done things like anti-satellite tests that China now wants to wrap its rhetoric in international legal language. It diverts attention from what was done to arguing about how things should be done in the future and it does so with a language that scores points diplomatically.

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