Don't Be a Menace to South (China Sea)

...and other strategies for managing the world's most important bilateral relationship.

As President Barack Obama prepares for his trip to Asia this week, he will face questions not just about the administration's signature rebalance, or "pivot" toward that region, but also about the crisis in Ukraine. The leaders Obama will meet in South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines will be preoccupied with what appears to them as a potential Asian parallel to the challenge Europe faces: How can the United States and its friends and allies deal with an increasingly assertive regional power? Put more bluntly -- as the leaders will surely do in their private talks with Obama -- how would the United States respond if China should resort to unilateral territorial intervention in their own backyard?

The administration's strategic shift to East Asia in 2011 was built on two pillars. First, the United States would pursue its long-term interest in peace and stability in East Asia through sustained commitment to its traditional allies; second, it would build a cooperative, constructive relationship with a rising China, while also managing differences. 

In theory, this strategy is intended to take account of the inevitable growth of China's influence while reducing the danger that the relationship will lead to instability or even conflict. But in recent months, as China has pressed its territorial claims in the East and South China seas, the viability of this strategy has been increasingly put to the test. China's unilateral acts -- including its November declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that included the disputed Senkaku Islands administered by Japan (which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu) and its efforts to block the resupply of Philippine Marines on the disputed Second Thomas shoal -- have frightened China's neighbors and led to questions of what the rebalance means in the context of these troubling moves.

The Obama administration has repeated its long-standing position that it takes no position on the merits of the sovereignty disputes, but opposes the use of force or coercion to resolve them. And it has asserted that it stands by its treaty commitments to Japan and the Philippines. But that has not led to significant progress. The risk of conflict remains high.

The situation in Asia is arguably more complex than in Ukraine, where the United States has no bilateral security treaty but has clearly stated that Russia has infringed on Ukraine's sovereignty. Conversely, while the United States has formal treaty obligations in East Asia, it acknowledges that the countries in question differ on territorial sovereignty. And by taking no position it admits to the situation's ambiguity.

The United States could abandon its neutrality and side with Japan and the Philippines on the territorial disputes, to dissuade Chinese adventurism. But such a move would deepen tensions between the United States and China without necessarily pushing Beijing to engage more diplomatically with its neighbors. And it risks moving toward bilateral confrontation with echoes of the Cold War -- a result none of the United States' partners in the region would welcome, given their deep economic interdependence with China. 

Instead, a more comprehensive approach to the changing tectonics of East Asia is needed: one that treats the territorial disputes not as isolated problems, but rather addresses the fundamental problem of dealing with a rising power.

For four decades since then-President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip, the relationship between the United States and China has been largely cooperative. A weak China posed little threat to the United States and its allies while offering a growing market for U.S. goods, a source of inexpensive imports for the U.S. consumer, and a partner in the struggle to contain the USSR.

But with the end of the strategic alignment based on shared concerns about the USSR, coupled with China's increasing military capacity fueled by its spectacular economic growth, both sides have increasingly questioned the sustainability of that cooperation. Many in China see the U.S. rebalance as ill-disguised containment, while many in the United States see Chinese military modernization and territorial assertiveness as strong indications that Beijing seeks to undermine Washington's alliances and drive the United States from the Western Pacific. The result threatens to be a familiar albeit tragic one: growing tension leading to conflict that serves no one's interest. And given China's huge economic potential and momentum, it is in many ways a more formidable potential adversary than Russia, despite the latter's huge stock of nuclear weapons.

Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed solving the problem by building strategic trust, and "a new form of major power relationship." But that begs the most important questions: how to build trust, and what kind of relationship can the United States and China aspire to? Compounding this challenge, the long-term intentions of both sides are inherently unknowable. The inclination in the face of such uncertainty is to prepare for the worst -- which all too frequently becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To manage this dilemma, the United States needs a clear strategy. We propose one entitled "Resolve and Reassure."

War too often results from misplaced judgments about another country's resolve. In East Asia, and between China and the United States, the Korean War demonstrates what can happen when countries miscalculate other's willingness to act. The United States needs to project clarity about its resolve to defend its vital interests. And in the current context of East Asia, nowhere is this more important than with respect to alliance commitments. To prevent misjudgment, the United States must sustain the credibility of its treaty obligations, both in words -- as the administration has done by making clear that the Senkakus fall under the U.S. obligation to assist Japan via the U.S.-Japan security treaty -- and in actions.

That does not mean Washington must immediately unsheathe the sword if tensions escalate over China's actions near the Senkakus or disputed islands in the South China Sea, but it must make clear that it is prepared to impose significant costs if red lines are crossed -- which is why the response to Russia's actions in Ukraine is so salient to the situation in East Asia. 

U.S. allies in Asia worry that China's ability to impose economic costs against the United States might deter Washington from acting -- a concern exacerbated by U.S. and European caution in imposing costs on Russia. The late March expansion of sanctions against Russia should help reassure U.S. allies of Washington's willingness to accept the risks of economic retaliation in order to impose costs on those who cross red lines. U.S. allies will be watching closely to see if the threats of broader sanctions become more concrete in the event of further Russian encroachments.

But projecting resolve is only one part of a strategy to stabilize U.S.-China relations. The United States and its allies also have an interest in reassuring China that if Beijing acts responsibly, they will not seek to thwart its future prosperity and security. Resolve must be matched by appropriate confidence building, including the willingness to enter into mutual agreements that help make credible each side's professions of good intentions. These might include "Open Skies" reconnaissance agreements, where both sides allow territorial overflights to reduce concerns about concealment; agreements for handling incidents at sea to reduce the risk of accidental encounters that could be interpreted as deliberate provocations, whether they are or not; and restrictions on destabilizing activities in space, such as the deliberate destruction of spacecraft.

Just as important as formal agreements is the willingness of both sides to exercise restraint in defensive actions that might appear threatening; to enhance transparency to dispel misunderstandings; and to reciprocate positive actions to stimulate a virtuous circle of enhanced confidence. This might mean Chinese willingness to slow the rate of its military buildup rather than race for parity. And for the United States it might mean modifying its Air-Sea Battle concept, beginning with a more benign name such as Air-Sea Operations and a more inclusive approach toward implementation, to emphasize defensive objectives instead of offensive operations -- which some Chinese view as seeking the ability to deliver a pre-emptive, knock out blow. Both sides need to revise and coordinate their contingency planning in places like the Korean Peninsula, in order to mitigate the dangers of unwanted escalation.

This is an ambitious agenda. But if China and the United States hope to avoid the growing rivalry that has too often accompanied the interaction between a dominant and rising power, this effort is needed. A judicious combination of strategic reassurance and resolve could save the U.S.-China relationship from the spiral of mistrust that characterizes the U.S.-Russia relationship today -- and protect against the even greater dangers that could result.

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Waste of Space

135 million pieces of junk are orbiting Earth at 18,000 mph -- and U.S. space dominance is in danger of being ripped to shreds.

By the time the film Gravity won seven Academy Awards in March, casual viewers probably knew it as much for its arresting visual imagery as for its lengthy list of technical errors. Amplified by the Twitter feed of celeb astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, space watchers identified problems with Sandra Bullock's hair (why wouldn't if float in a zero-G environment), and why would the Hubble telescope and International Space Station have the same sight lines (given they are over 100 miles apart). However, the one tweet from deGrasse Tyson that got overlooked was that the movie was plausible: "The film #Gravity depicts a scenario of catastrophic satellite destruction that can actually happen."

The problem of orbital space debris is one that I focused on for a new Council on Foreign Relations report on "Dangerous Space Incidents." Over the past nine months, I had the opportunity to speak with many U.S. government officials and staffers, and non-governmental experts, who work on national security space issues. One repeated concern was that the sort of space debris that threatened George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Gravity was among the most underappreciated global commons challenges facing the world. Moreover, because the United States remains the predominant actor in space -- with 43 percent of active satellites and 75 percent of global space funding -- it has the most to lose from a space domain further littered with space debris.

There are some pertinent facts about space debris that demonstrate the pressing danger. Roughly three-quarters of all space debris -- 23,000 items over 10 centimeters across, 300,000 measuring between 1 and 10 centimeters, and over 135,000,000 fragments less than 1 centimeter -- is presently found in low earth orbit (LEO), the area extending from 99 to 1,200 miles above the Earth. Traveling at an average speed of 18,000 miles per hour, even small pieces of debris can damage or destroy satellites and spacecraft. At that speed, even a half-inch piece of debris would have the kinetic force of a bowling ball thrown 300 miles per hour, as NASA describes it. (This is one thing Gravity gets very wrong: the actors would not have been able to see the debris moving toward them.)

The problem is that space debris tends to hang around. At lower altitudes, it can be pulled by the Earth's gravity within years and burn-up upon re-entering the atmosphere. Higher up, it can remain for decades or centuries and collide with other pieces of debris or spacecraft, thus exponentially creating more debris in a process known as the Kessler Syndrome. In 2011, the National Research Council estimated that portions of the space debris environment had already reached this "tipping point," with enough in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris.

Debris poses the most acute threat to critical U.S. space assets that reside in LEO, where, not coincidently, half of the world's 1,100 active satellites reside, including many essential for U.S. government and military missions. Satellites where the greatest amount of LEO space debris exists (at an altitude of 370-620 miles about the Earth), include: The Air Force's ORS-1, used for reconnaissance of Afghanistan and Central Asia; the Missile Defense Agency's NFIRED, which gathers high resolution data to help validate boost phase intercept simulations; dozens of remote-sensing satellites operated by U.S. intelligence agencies; and the Iridium constellations of 66 communications satellites that provide global data transfer and encrypted voice communications for U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

Historically, space debris had been produced in small amounts from human activity, including the upper stages of launch vehicles, disabled spacecraft, dead batteries, solid rocket motor waste, and refuse from human missions. But while it took 40 years to produce the first 10,000 pieces of softball-sized debris, it required less than a decade for the next 13,000. This recent increase was due in part to two worrying incidents in particular, which, according to NASA, combined to increase the number of total space objects by over 60 percent.

The first resulted from human error or negligence. In February 2009, an active U.S. Iridium communication satellite and a defunct Russian satellite, which were predicted to pass each other 1,900 feet apart, unexpectedly collided 500 miles above Siberia. This event unintentionally caused two objects in space to break up into 2,100 pieces, each larger than 10 centimeters.

The second was an act of human malevolence. In January 2007, China conducted a direct ascent anti-satellite test (ASAT) against its defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite, which instantly created 4,500 pieces of space debris, some 3,000 of which remain in orbit. There is disagreement about why China might have done this, and who authorized it, given that it was a self-inflicted harm, since 65 percent of China's 107 functioning satellites reside in LEO.

In his memoir, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote of the test: "We would later conclude that this action had been taken by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) without the knowledge of the civilian leadership in Beijing." Meanwhile, Gregory Kulacki and Foreign Policy contributor Jeffrey Lewis had earlier determined: "Multiple sources confirm these [PLA] managers did not make the decision to test by themselves. The decision was carefully vetted.... An internal report laying out the pros and cons worked its way up the bureaucracy for review and comment before finally being put before the ultimate decision makers." The lack of transparency into who authorized the test, and whether they knew that it would create such debris, raises the troubling prospect of what might precipitate similar space events conducted by China.

When U.S. intelligence agencies picked up evidence of the 2007 test and notified the Bush administration, the White House considered asking China to refrain, but ultimately chose to do nothing, fully expecting that the intercept attempt would fail -- as previous tests had in 2005 and 2006. According the diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks, soon after the debris-causing 2007 test, Chinese officials assured their American counterparts that they would conduct no additional ASAT tests. However, China did conduct similar intercept tests in 2010 and 2013, under the guise of hit-to-kill mid-course missile defense tests. More ominously, former Air Force officer and space expert Brian Weeden determined that, in May 2013, China tested the rocket component of a new direct ascent ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile -- representing a significant development in China's capabilities.

The reason that U.S. officials are particularly worried about the methodical and incremental escalation of China's potentially debris-creating ASAT capabilities is that it bears similarities to the timeline of U.S. and Soviet ASAT weapons testing that dates back to the 1960s. Indeed, this makes it difficult for Washington to tell Beijing to refrain from an activity that it conducted extensively in the past, particularly given the immense secrecy that shrouds U.S. military space activities. However, should China -- or other space-faring countries, such as North Korea, Iran, or India -- conduct one or more mass-debris creating ASAT tests, certain high-demand portions of LEO could be nearly uninhabitable.

One of those activities is well known, and serves to mitigate the global commons challenge of space debris. The U.S. Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which tracks space objects over 10 centimeters, has formal agreements with 41 commercial space operators and five countries (France, Italy, Japan, Australia, and Canada) to provide conjunction assessment notifications when it is predicted that one of their space systems could collide with existing debris. JSpOC also has a little-known informal mechanism, via the State Department, by which Russia and China are provided conjunction notifications. China, for example, has been warned hundreds of times in advance of when its satellites are predicted to collide with other satellites or space debris, including the orbiting junk created by its own ASAT test in 2007.

JSpOC provides over 10,000 such warnings of potential collisions each year, at no charge. In an April House hearing, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) asked the interesting question of: "Is it appropriate -- possible to even charge for those calls on a subscription basis, because that's an incredibly valuable service we're offering to the world for free?" Putting tight Pentagon budgets aside, Lt. Gen. John Raymond answered: "It's in our best interest as well for a safe, secure operating environment, and we do that for the world and for ourselves at the same time."

The bad news is that while JSpOC can predict, with good accuracy, when softball-sized debris will collide with something else, there remains no practical or cost-effective way to remove debris from orbit. Under the current space regime as defined by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, "States shall be responsible for their national activities in outer space, whether carried on by governmental or non-governmental entities." Launching states own and are liable for whatever they place in space. While outer space is a domain open to all countries, no country or international institution possesses the sovereign authority or responsibility for regulating space. Therefore, any efforts to remove space debris must be agreed upon by the international community.

There are steps the United States can take to prevent and mitigate the consequences of debris-causing incidents in space. In fact, the United States has a unique obligation to do so as it relies heavily on space and has unmatched space situational awareness. Specifically, the Obama administration should upgrade the JSpOC space fence or radars and sensors to better predict debris collisions, expand the scope and number of data-sharing agreements with countries and commercial space operators, test and develop space debris removal techniques through collaboration with other spacefaring nations, and work with Congress to repeal the 2011 provision that prevents Chinese officials or experts from visiting NASA's facilities in order to allow for bilateral civilian cooperation on space. To better ensure Washington's continued access to space as China, North Korea, Iran, and others, advance their capabilities, the United States must intensify its efforts to prevent dangerous incidents, or else forsake its role in shaping rules of the road for space.