The successful deflection by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of an asteroid in orbit last week constituted the first successful demonstration of a planetary defense capability. It also underscored a renewed American emphasis on the country’s massive space program, directly overseen by no less than Vice President Kamala Harris herself, as well as global public interest in space exploration.

The rendezvous evoked images of those armageddon-themed movies my generation grew up with in the early 2000s, which all featured extinction-level asteroid threats being successfully thwarted, in the name of all humanity, by the United States. Those films enabled NASA to take its place in the popular zeitgeist as the only planetary sentinel. Today, however, the dynamics in outer space has totally changed. It is no longer the exclusive playground of NASA and a few other major spacefaring actors. The significant decrease in the cost of launching and maintaining space-based objects in recent years has led to a contemporary proliferation of public and even private space programs. More and more actors are establishing their presence in orbit, among them developing countries, multinational companies, and even private organizations.

This democratization of access to outer space mirrors the increasing reliance of modern society on space-based infrastructure across all domains of human life and experience, ranging from something as basic as individual car navigation to something as complex as banking and finance and as critical as disaster mitigation and climate change adaptation. The conflict in Ukraine has also demonstrated how crucial space-based assets are to strategic objectives and to national defense, while the economic shocks caused by the pandemic underscored the potential of linking informal economies to electronic commerce through satellites. Despite this unrelenting pace of rapid technological advances, however, progress in diplomatic work to accordingly update the global governance framework covering outer space has been glacial.

This framework is underpinned by an ecosystem of treaties that includes the foundational 1967 Outer Space Treaty and several conventions pertaining to liability, registration of objects, and rescue of astronauts, as well as the less universal 1979 Moon Treaty. Together they comprise international space law, which has not been updated since the height of the Cold War, possibly because most policymakers have heretofore seen this as a mostly esoteric field. In Vienna, there have been advances in the development of norms to promote international cooperation in and ensure the safety and sustainability of outer space, the most notable of which was the recent adoption by a U.N. committee there of long-term sustainability guidelines for outer space users. The mandate of this Vienna-based process, however, does not cover security issues.

For instance, what are the rules of the road to ensure that states do not intentionally or unintentionally threaten other states in outer space? This question is under the purview of the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee, which is tasked with addressing issues concerning international peace and security. Unlike most U.N. workstreams, this mandate has always been relatively more political than technocratic. Its debates have traditionally been contentious or politicized, making substantive progress difficult. It is therefore not surprising that the First Committee’s outlook on outer space has barely evolved since the height of the Cold War. Its discussions remain framed in the context of “preventing an arms race in outer space,” a debate thread so long and so entrenched that it has taken an acronym of its own: PAROS.

As its name suggests, PAROS operates in a rigid conceptual grammar more attuned to the strategic dynamics of a bipolar Cold War. Indeed, when outer space security issues were first taken up by the U.N., there were only two spacefaring powers: the Soviet Union and the United States. Anxious about the prospects of these two superpowers monopolizing the use of outer space in pursuit of their respective strategic designs at the expense of the interests of all humankind, smaller and middle powers sought to constrain these exclusive Russo-American capabilities by forming legal rules generally designed to prevent outer space from becoming another theater of Russo-American strategic competition.

It was in this context that non-aligned states began to call for a legally binding treaty that will prevent the weaponization of outer space and the placement of weapons there. They also sought to preserve outer space as a “common heritage of humankind,” which means that it should be free not only to all nations but also to all generations. So far, the farthest they could get was a ban on nuclear weapons in outer space and on any claim of sovereignty over any parts of outer space or any celestial body under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, as well as the more progressive classification of the moon as “a province of all mankind” under the less universal 1979 Moon Treaty.

Work on a treaty to prevent the placement of other weapons in outer space remains incomplete and has become a subject of a continuing and sometimes acrimonious debate. Most non-aligned states, along with China and Russia, insist that negotiations on such a treaty should commence without further delay. The U.S., which remains the dominant power in outer space, is opposed, citing technical difficulties and differences in understandings. The U.S. argues, for instance, that outer space weapons are hard to define, since some peaceful capabilities — including the one that NASA used to deflect that asteroid — have dual-use nature and can also be weaponized. A blanket ban on their deployment could discourage technological innovation.

This debate — whether to start negotiating a treaty or not — has essentially bogged down PAROS discussions in the U.N., rendering its work less responsive to the profound evolution in the security dynamics in outer space in the past two decades. Today, outer space security issues are no longer limited to maintaining strategic stability among major powers. Safeguarding the security of space infrastructure that support developing countries in providing critical economic, national security, and humanitarian services has also become an important consideration. For many emerging spacefaring states, therefore, the debate needs to transcend strategic and ideological rigidities and address practical realities.

In was in this context that the General Assembly passed a resolution last year establishing a Geneva-based open-ended working group (OEWG) to discuss reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior. While the resolution was adopted by the Assembly under the traditional agenda item on PAROS, it envisions a much broader mandate that addresses various aspects of outer space security beyond the usual Cold War-era paradigm.

The OEWG, which is basically a diplomatic panel comprising of representatives of all General Assembly members and observers, has been tasked to facilitate a conversation that is agnostic on the question of whether a legally binding instrument is needed or not, focusing instead on defining the norms of responsible behavior. Over a two-year period, this group is to meet four times, and then submit a report to the 78th session of the General Assembly next year. The group’s report could contain either some initial recommendations or substantive conclusions, or both or none at all.

During the first two meetings held this year, the OEWG took stock of existing international law and how it applies in the context of outer space security, and discussed what constitutes threats to states and irresponsible behaviors by states that could lead to threats, respectively. The first subject was generally uncontroversial, although there were debates on whether the rules of warfare that lawyers refer to as international humanitarian law (IHL) should apply to outer space — a few states fear that recognizing such application is a slippery slope that could legitimize war-fighting in a domain that states had long wanted to preserve for exclusively peaceful use.

The second subject, meanwhile, surfaced some of the differences among major powers regarding their threat perceptions. The U.S. and its western allies, for instance, emphasized the danger of debris-creating anti-satellite missile tests that China and Russia have conducted in recent past. No less than Vice President Harris announced a unilateral moratorium on such testing, encouraging others to do the same. Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Germany followed suit. At this year’s General Assembly session, the U.S. is tabling a resolution that seeks to enshrine such moratorium as a global norm.

China and Russia, on the other hand, see the promotion of such a moratorium as an American ploy to cement its dominance in anti-satellite capabilities. They point out that the U.S. no longer needs to conduct such tests, having already fully acquired anti-satellite capabilities, implying that a moratorium would only tie the hands of those whose anti-satellite capabilities are still in their nascent stages. Instead of focusing on anti-satellite tests, Beijing and Moscow point to American security doctrines that classify outer space as a strategic domain as a serious concern. They also challenge Washington to agree to a treaty that will ban the placement of any space-to-earth weapons, which they cite as a significant security threat. The Americans insist, however, that such weapons remain hypothetical.

Meanwhile, the majority of states, especially those with nascent capabilities and modest presence in outer space, are eager for a positive outcome. These nascent spacefaring states are vulnerable to actions by the more established space powers, yet they usually have neither the situational awareness nor the maneuverability to protect their modest space-based assets. For instance, some satellites operated by major powers have propulsion systems that render them maneuverable in orbit, and their operations would sometimes bring them in close proximity to less advanced satellites from developing states, who would have no clue why those satellites are nearby and would be left anxious about possible collision. With the rules of the road unclear in such a scenario, the advanced spacefaring state is able to operate at will while the less developed spacefaring state is rendered helpless, unable to protect an asset that could be critical to its national security. And this is just the most benign of examples. The use of blinding flares, electronic and cyber spoofing or jamming, and the launching of projectiles from a satellite compound the vulnerability of the modest space-based assets that developing countries currently operate.

The challenge for the majority of states is to therefore set the rules of the road that would induce the more advanced spacefarers to be more responsible in their actions, and to take into account the interest of the less developed space actors. This could only be possible if polarized political debates are transcended and the flavor of discussions is diversified. The focus should not be on any specific action by any specific country, but on practical concerns that are relevant to all states, regardless of their strategic outlooks. So far, two promising contributions have been made in this regard.

First, during the discussions on the applicability of international law, the Philippines presented a paper encouraging states to elaborate the meaning of a key provision in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that requires all activities in outer space to be conducted with “due regard” to the rights of others. For some, the concept of “due regard” remains nebulous. The Philippines argues, however, that clarity can already be found in in the the law of the sea, where the principle originated and evolved. Subsequent jurisprudence of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), for instance, has already clarified that the duty of “due regard” represents a balancing of rights and interests between and among states as well as between states and the international community as a whole. The Philippines argues that this framing could be a foundational standard with which to identify which behavior is responsible and which are not.

Second, during this month’s session, the Philippines and Germany presented a joint paper that defines risks and threats in outer space and lists current dual-use capabilities that could compound threat perceptions. It then provides a comprehensive list of examples of irresponsible behaviors that could threaten outer space security, including debris-creating and satellite-threatening kinetic actions, uncoordinated rendezvous and proximity operations, and the use of cyber and electronic jamming or spoofing, among others. The joint paper encourages a discussion on threat perception in a manner that focuses not on capabilities, which are in themselves value-neutral, but on how these capabilities are used. The initiative was well-received not only because of the substance it contains but also the credibility of its authors. The Philippines and Germany come from two different U.N. constituencies — the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG), respectively — but they are known bridge-builders with a long history of solid commitment to the rules-based international order.

These contributions demonstrate the possibility of substantive discussions that transcend entrenched ideological outlooks. They could provide a useful basis for the next step in the OEWG’s work, which is to discuss possible norms of responsible behavior that could reduce threats and encourage mutual trust and confidence. Reaching a measure of understanding regarding how states generally expect spacefaring actors to behave is an important exercise. It constitutes a first step towards developing norms that could set the standards by which to measure state behavior. Such standards would clarify how spacefaring actors should be expected to behave, and whether a certain behavior deviates from such expectations.

Such norms could then eventually become the building blocks with which to build a robust outer space governance architecture. In the end, the best foundation to support such an architecture remains to be legally binding instruments developed through multilateral consensus. Like all enduring structures, such an architecture would take some time to build. Yet once completed, it could hopefully support efforts to help protect humanity not only from asteroids but also from its own internal squabbles.

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