WASHINGTON -- The wave of criticism from Washington aimed at Beijing over debris from an enormous Chinese rocket that fell back to Earth over the weekend was not just motivated by safety concerns. The U.S. also has another loftier ambition -- taking the lead in writing the international rule book for space and countering any Chinese attempts at militarization.
The international community is expected to begin discussions to establish detailed norms and principles for actions in space at the United Nations as early as fall. By calling for responsible action, the U.S. seeks to discourage against any reckless moves by China and other nations with military ambitions in space.
"We want to see everybody who are actors in space do so in a responsible, deliberate way that's mindful of the safety of all our citizens here on Earth," U.S. Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday.
China launched a Long March 5B rocket in late April as part of its push to build its own space station. While smaller space debris usually burns up upon reentering the atmosphere, debris the enormous rocket fell into the Indian Ocean on Sunday in a so-called uncontrolled reentry.
The U.S. government has slammed the incident for potentially endangering lives, with NASA chief Bill Nelson accusing China of "failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris." White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said, "It's in the shared interests of all nations to act responsibly in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities."
Meanwhile, China defended its actions, saying there were no issues with its handling of the rocket's debris.
The U.S. concerns come amid a global push to established a rules-based order in space. The fall of Chinese rocket debris "may help spur diplomatic activities to develop international norms to enhance the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities," said Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp.
The U.N. General Assembly in December adopted a resolution calling for a discussion on responsible behaviors in space, driven largely by the U.S. and Europe and opposed by China and Russia. Discussions on specific behaviors are likely to be in full swing as early as this fall.
The U.S. is concerned in particular by China's military strategy in space. For example, there are voices in U.S. defense circles that China could turn to space to gain an edge in the early stages of a conflict with the U.S., as destroying satellites could disrupt the U.S. chain of command and precision missile strikes.
"Counterspace operations will be integral to potential military campaigns by [China's People's Liberation Army], and China has counterspace weapons capabilities intended to target U.S. and allied satellites," according to an April report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
"The creation of long-lived orbital debris arising from the deliberate destruction of space systems increases the risk of in-orbit collisions and the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculations that could lead to conflict," the U.N. resolution from December warned. The U.S. believes that China is developing anti-satellite missiles, and wants to discourage testing of such missiles by establishing a code of conduct in space.
Russia also tested an anti-satellite missile in December, according to the U.S. Space Command. The U.S. had previously criticized Russia for a test in July, when it fired a projectile from one satellite to another.
Despite these developments, China and Russia so far have supported restrictions on arms in space to prevent the U.S. from deploying missile defense systems. But the U.S. pushed back, which has hindered the creation of detailed restrictions. U.S. President Joe Biden sees disarmament as a potential avenue for cooperation with China and Russia, but obstacles remain for concrete progress on the issue.
The existing framework for arms control is based on the Outer Space Treaty, which took effect in 1967 and bans party nations from placing nuclear weapons in orbit.
"While a necessary starting point, the OST is quickly becoming outdated, and its requirements are open to much interpretation," Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director and fellow of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an October report.
Though nations are required to alert others to activity that could cause harmful interference in space, "nations have rarely followed this practice thus far," she said.