The contested geopolitics of outer space

Author: Helen Argyris, University of Melbourne

Our world is becoming more competitive and contested, extending its geopolitical challenges from Earth to outer space. Since World War 2, states have increasingly recognised the benefits and risks that outer space might pose to national security, prosperity, and international diplomacy.

The importance of outer space was evident during the Cold War when the United States and the former Soviet Union developed their space programs as a means of contest. Since then, the number of state actors has multiplied.  The use of space technology has exponentially increased, clearly visible in the contemporary weaponization of space.

In any discussion of space weaponization, it is essential to establish that the definition of ‘space weapons’ is not settled. But a broad definition of space weapons can allude to capabilities that can attack targets or disable missiles while simultaneously protecting critical civilian and military assets in outer space. This broad definition allows countries to interpret existing rules and norms and legitimise their efforts to develop their own space weapons.

This has been evident with China’s Counterspace Program. This program is under development by China’s military forces, and it aims to exploit any vulnerable space infrastructure of the United States during a potential conflict. This capability is based on the manufacturing of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs). ASATs are considered as designed weapons that aim to destroy or limit military satellites through the utilisation of kinetic and non-kinetic energy. ASATs belong in the grey area of the international arms control because the 1967 Outer Space Treaty failed to consider them as space weapons. Therefore, it allows countries, like China, to legitimise their development and utilise them during a conflict against crucial space-based assets of their adversaries.

The development of space weapons depicts that the geopolitical picture of outer space is now a contested state of rivalry, with the United States and China being the main actors while upholding the belief that outer space is the pathway for these states to pursue their military, economic and ideological dominance. The outcome of the historic space rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, has already shown that the state with a geopolitical advantage in outer space has a pre-eminent power across military, intelligence, science, and commercial domains.

Apart from space weapons, governments interested in outer space are investing in Artificial intelligence (AI) military technology. AI technology improves automate missions and prevents adversaries from attacking critical space infrastructure that threatens national defence networks. An attack of such scale has the potential to damage a state’s strategic autonomy in outer space, its ability to undertake communication and coalition operations for civilian and military purposes and change the internal and external dynamics of the broader geopolitical system.

Australia should not be left behind in these changing times with the US-China geopolitical rivalry expanding to the outer space. Although the signature of bilateral partnerships through Memorandum of Understandings (MoU) with the United Kingdom, New Zealand,  Canada, France, Germany and the United States provides us with technological, economic, and research opportunities, there is a lack of detail and depth on space initiatives.

Australia may not need the space capabilities that other countries have. But the government should develop a national strategy that perceives outer space as both a military field and an operational domain for cooperation and diplomatic exchange. As an influential middle power, Australia will have the capacity to promote outer space as an ‘operational domain’ rather than a military one.

To achieve this, Australia should adopt a non-confrontational policy language that would encourage states to maintain responsible behaviour while adhering to the UNGA Resolution 75/36 on space arms control.  Adherence to the UNGA Resolution will help to mitigate the security dilemma in outer space and deescalate the current geopolitical tensions between the United States and China. Also, this Resolution will strengthen the role of multilateral disarmament negotiation forums, such as the Conference on Disarmament, to prevent the weaponization of outer space through the development of relevant anti-satellite weapons.

It is also essential for Australia to embed space on its foreign policy to align with security concerns and diplomatic priorities. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper recognises space militarisation as a challenge in this decade, however, it does not explore the opportunities that outer space can provide to Australia’s national security and diplomatic influence. Creating a dedicated team with the relevant expertise can be the first step towards this direction along with appropriate financial resources to space diplomacy. These measures will equip Australia with the capacity to be influential internationally in civil and security matters.

The geopolitical landscape in outer space is becoming contested with the United States-China rivalry, reflecting the competition on Earth. Without a narrowed definition of space weapons, governments are interpreting principles and norms in a way that allows them to develop military weapons, including anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) military technologies. These weapons help them not only to adjust in this geopolitical competition but also give them a decisive edge in outer space. Australia needs to establish a national strategy based on a whole-of-government policy that will perceive outer space as domain for operation and not as a battlefield to respond to such developments,

A national strategy that would unify the military and diplomatic aspects of outer space is a national interest to maintain responsible behaviour and prevent any escalatory rhetoric between geopolitical rivals. Failure to do so will have severe political and security costs.

Helen Argyris is Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne.