It seems almost impossible, given the long history of American hypocrisy over China’s nuclear arsenal and its unrelenting refusal to admit responsibility for global warming, to imagine that President Donald Trump would look kindly on a Chinese-led initiative to develop thermonuclear weapons in space.
Some commentators have accused Trump of being “in the tank” for China because of his preference for autocratic regimes and his refusal to take decisive steps to counter China’s influence in the Pacific and beyond. But if Trump, who is said to be more pro-China than pro-UK, is indeed courting China’s help in trade negotiations, he might find some reason to take China’s suggestion seriously.
One can sympathise with one side or the other in a trade dispute: the US is a leader among the world’s highly acquisitive countries, while China has a poor record of facilitating free trade. Yet in this battle, surely we should have the foresight to try to find common ground. That might mean focusing our efforts on building trust, not more confrontation, and perhaps even working for an agreement that would help avoid a trade war.
One of the main reasons for launching a strategic movement that helps combat nuclear proliferation in space is to try to prevent a nuclear confrontation on Earth, where 60% of humanity lives. And even if we don’t immediately succeed in stopping China from getting their hands on nuclear weapons in space, a concerted and coordinated international effort might yet succeed in preventing them from developing them.
Some might object that the point of a new global treaty on space weapons is to take an obstructionist stance against China’s behaviour. In fact, the moral basis for doing so, and the rationale for calling China’s bluff, is only one component of a broader effort to reach an international consensus on space weapons. If we really do want to prevent a space arms race, we must reach agreement not only on the overall range of space weapons, but also on guidelines for developing and deploying them. This is why China says it would like to sign a declaration on “common principles for the peaceful use of outer space”. That statement, because it identifies and rejects “any form of weapons of mass destruction”, leaves open the possibility of fruitful collaboration on a broad range of space weapons.
That said, we must make sure that we avoid the dangerous fallacy of selective altruism. We should reject any treaty that treats all the countries of the world unfairly, even those that do not possess weapons of mass destruction. Giving up missile defence, for example, would mean no safeguard for our neighbours from the kinds of threats posed by North Korea. And we should be wary of the strategic games played by some participants in the space race. Any new treaty should be able to stand up to a robust contest by Russia and China, with whom we should try to negotiate a greater burden of proof.
Some have even urged us to reject the China and Russia offer because it makes reference to the doctrine of “necessity”. That is the idea that any action being proposed is justified by a real or perceived need for its use in order to save or save someone else. The 1990 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations explicitly forbids taking necessary action “under unreasonable or justifiable circumstances”. Why did China and Russia feel they had to point this out?
This is not to suggest that we would ever rule out negotiations with China and Russia on space weapons in an effort to reach a meaningful agreement on their behaviour in space. Instead, we should be ready to offer China and Russia certain benefits in exchange for a willing willingness to try to reach an agreement that would help all sides. These could include: broad affirmation of core norms of international behaviour on outer space, including non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; recognition of China’s legitimate interests in becoming a member of the UN security council and other multilateral institutions; an agreement that nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction can be only “protected” in space from the threat of “devastating” missile attack under the principle of no first use; and respect for China’s interests in securing space assets in peace.
What kind of deal would be right for us? That depends partly on our ongoing fear of a nuclear Chinese bomb on the moon. But it also depends on our desire to avoid the worst of a new space arms race. The deal we need with China and Russia is one that sets guidelines for the development of space weapons while strengthening international norms against their use. It would be a principled and courageous move on the part of President Trump to help build a greater understanding of the issue, reach a global consensus, and