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US ‘Space Diplomacy’ strategy seeks to counter ‘competitors’ soft-power plays

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks before signing the U.S.-Japan Space Cooperation Framework Agreement at NASA headquarters January 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The State Department today published a first-of-its-kind strategy for using diplomatic tools to maintain US leadership in space, including efforts to woo emerging space players away from “strategic competitors” — certainly referring in particular to China, which has made space cooperation a key part of its own global soft-power push.

The Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy [PDF], is “a groundbreaking initiative to advance U.S. global space leadership,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press release today. “Through this Framework, we will expand international cooperation on mutually beneficial space activities, including through the Artemis Accords, and commitments against destructive anti-satellite missile tests. We will encourage responsible behavior, strengthen understanding and support for U.S. national space policies, and promote international use of U.S. space capabilities.”

The strategy focuses on three “pillars:”

  1. Using diplomacy to shape global space policies for “the benefit of future generations;”
  2. Using space cooperation to achieve US foreign policy goals; and
  3. “Empowering” the State Dept. workforce to do so.

It then lays out a series of goals and subgoals under each pillar. Interestingly, the strategy also includes a strong theme around the need for cooperation with the commercial space industry, including laying out goals for for how diplomacy will be used to forward US commercial industry — such as facilitating market opportunities and encouraging other countries to adopt US regulatory approaches.

“Increasing commercial leadership and participation means we cannot rely solely on government-to-government diplomacy,” the document says. For example, it addresses the need for cooperation with industry to increase the cybersecurity of space systems.

At the same time, the strategy recognizes that the dichotomy between State’s role in promoting US industry and in serving as a tool for national security strategy.

“Technology transfer concerns and corresponding regulation mean an inherent necessary tension exists between our dual missions of protecting national security and promoting the U.S. space industry and the benefits of space for all,” the document explains.

The commercial focus was welcomed by the Satellite Industries Association. “SIA applauds the release of the State Department’s Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy and the report’s appreciation for the need for both traditional diplomacy as well as engagement with the U.S. and worldwide commercial space stakeholders,” said SIA President Tom Stroup in a release today.

While the new strategy is largely a one-stop-shop articulation of current US space policies, several experts noted that the act of publishing the document does signal a focus on diplomacy and governance as important national strategies in their own right, and not afterthoughts to hard-power considerations.

Jessica West, who follows international space governance issues at Canada’s Project Ploughshares, agreed, but gave the Biden administration kudos for putting a spotlight on space diplomacy.

“This elevation of diplomacy and governance is essential and should be applauded; we need more of this,” she said.

Victoria Samson, head of Secure World Foundation’s Washington office, for example noting the strategy’s focus on working with allies and like-minded nations on norms/rules of responsible behavior in space — echoing the recent Biden administration efforts in the ongoing United Nations Open Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats.

She also praised the strategy for leaving the door “ajar” for future legally binding arms control treaties. While the State Department has said before that it might be open to the evolution of its proposed international moratorium on testing of destructive anti-satellite missiles into a treaty, she said, the new strategic framework “builds upon those statements.”

But at the same time, West said, the policy is very clear about championing US political and economic interests in space, and just as clear in framing space policy as a zero-sum game with US rivals.

“Despite the focus on diplomacy and governance and references to ‘humanity,’ it’s not a warm and fuzzy policy,” West explained. “It is firmly rooted in national interest — which is fair. It also clearly gives voice to an emerging view of space governance as a mode of strategic competition over the future direction of the rules in outer space. This competition is viewed as fact. But it’s also concerning. We face a risk of fragmenting governance in outer space. Avoiding this requires leadership to listen and engage with competitors and those who think differently. I don’t see that here.”

For example, the strategy document’s section on “challenges” states that “U.S. competitors are organizing, training, and equipping their forces to undermine U.S. and allied security in space.” In addition, it highlights China’s efforts  to undercut American military, political and economic influence around the world — including by wooing emerging space players with economic cooperation carrots.

“Distinct civil and military space policies and programs do not exist in all nations. New, emerging space partners balance space relationships with us and our strategic competitors. Some governments may not recognize the vulnerabilities of increased intermingling with competitors’ space industries,” the document asserts.

The strategy makes clear that China is the key economic competitor for the US in space. Quoting the Director of National Intelligence’s 2023 Annual Threat Assessment, the document says: “China’s space activities are designed to advance its global standing and strengthen its attempts to erode U.S. influence across military, technological, economic, and diplomatic spheres.”

Space is a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to build up infrastructure around the globe. Soft-power outreach efforts range from building remote sensing satellite ground stations in African countries to opening up its lunar and deep space exploration programs to foreign partners, to building a rocket launch facility in Djibouti. 

Thus, the strategy calls pledges the State Department to:

  • “Track foreign government non-market practices in the space industry. Raise awareness with allies and partners of potential risks of collaboration with strategic competitors.
  • “Connect emerging and aspiring space partners with U.S. expertise on national space policies and agency and governance structures, technological innovation, scientific collaboration, and equitable STEM education to help ensure the United States remains the partner of choice.”

In addition, the strategy makes clear that while the US will seek to cooperate with “strategic competitors” on issues such as working to curb the creation of dangerous space debris, best practices for safe space operations and confidence building measures to dampen risks of conflict, that cooperation will come with strings.

“Future cooperation with strategic competitors will depend on these countries’ adherence to international standards both in space and here on Earth,” the document says.

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