Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

[WebDebate #24 summary] Space diplomacy: Old geopolitics or new frontier for collaboration?

Published on 18 September 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

In our September WebDebate, we looked at space diplomacy. While space diplomacy is a hotly debated issue of geopolitical dimensions, it also reminds us of the need for multilateral efforts and pooling resources together in the interest of achieving a larger goal, while offering opportunities to foster better collaboration between scientists and diplomats under the various guises of science diplomacy. Joining us to discuss these issues were Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, distinguished fellow and head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation; Dr Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in international relations at the University of Leicester, UK; Dr Jean-Christophe Mauduit, Science Diplomacy Center at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, USA.

Outer space is not only a domain of peace

Rajagopalan started by identifying the changes that occurred in the space domain over the last decade. The first change is the growing number and new types of actors – there are over sixty players in space nowadays, including commercial ones. The second change is the utilisation of space in the national security context, as states are incorporating the outer space aspect into conventional military operations. Third, there is a change in the balance of power between countries in Asia and beyond that has had an influence on how space diplomacy is conducted; how priorities in the space domain are determined; and how challenges are identified and addressed.

According to Rajagopalan, given current policy trends, space cannot be seen as a completely peaceful domain anymore. She underlined that the trend of weaponisation of outer space must be avoided, and stressed that the dual use of outer space and related technology makes it difficult to differentiate between a peaceful object and a weapon.

Rajagopalan also argued that unregulated cooperation between countries in the space domain could further or spur regional or global insecurity which is why rules of engagement for cooperation and collaboration within the space domain should exist. The existing mechanisms for space governance need to be reviewed, rewritten, or replaced with new mechanisms in order to mitigate deterrence policies and arms races in the space domain. She concluded that any mechanism for space diplomacy needs to include all stakeholders, and needs to pay attention to legal, scientific, and political issues.

Space politics: a continuation of terrestrial politics

Bowen underlined that the use of space is not only characterised by scientific activities or the need for prestige and symbolism. Rather, space has been central to military capabilities and security for the most advanced states since the dawn of the space age. However, there is a maturation of battlefield applications of satellites and space systems today, and a proliferation of those technologies outside of the USA and NATO, namely in China and Russia. According to Bowen, the biggest concern for space diplomacy when it comes to military questions and warfare are the existing missile defence capabilities on Earth.

However, Bowen also stressed that space is a place and not a policy issue. There are different aspects of space that can be a subject of policy. Bowen also noted that he fundamentally disagrees with the dichotomy between old geopolitics and collaboration in the space domain, because space diplomacy is a continuation of terrestrial politics. Therefore, space is more than just an environment for competition or collaboration.

Science diplomacy and space

Mauduit pointed out that scientists understand space differently from diplomats. While diplomats are often focusing on Earth’s orbit and its security implications, scientists look further afield, to the Solar system and beyond. This understanding of the universe requires international collaboration that is best described under the umbrella term of science diplomacy, Mauduit stressed. Science diplomacy is a new name for collaboration that has been long present in the space domain. Science diplomacy can be understood as science in diplomacy, wherein scientists advise governments; diplomacy for science wherein diplomats facilitate international scientific collaboration; and science for diplomacy, wherein scientific collaboration improves international relations. Mauduit emphasised that like any other international space, outer space is a source of interactions of humans and politics. Science diplomacy, which remains an underutilised concept when it comes to space, is an important tool in grasping this complexity.

Space is crowded

When asked about possible regulation regarding the vast amounts of space debris in earth’s orbit, and so-called space situational awareness (SSA), Rajagopalan pointed out that there is not a clear understanding of the types of objects in outer space nor knowledge of their number. She noted there is a need to build upon national capabilities to clean up space debris in order to achieve a holistic understanding and appreciation of the outer space environment. Only a small set of actors even possess the debris removal technologies, but it remains unclear which debris should be removed and by whom, Rajagopalan underlined. She concluded that the biggest problem of space governance is the lack of agreement between major players. Some, for example, do not regard space debris as a challenge. Only after an agreement on challenges is achieved can a mechanism to solve them be adopted.

Bowen noted that countries are slowly developing their SSA capabilities. At the moment, Russia and China lack adequate SSA data. The USA on the other hand has shared its SSA data for others to use and keep their satellites safe. However, according to Bowen, sharing SSA data could become a security issue. SSA data would enable more countries to develop military options because more countries will know which satellite they need to avoid, jam or eliminate physically during sensitive times. This security threat, Bowen claimed, can be a big hurdle for cooperation and it is certainly the biggest hurdle of building a more global and open data source of SSA. Bowen identified the USA, China, and Russia as the biggest polluters in space. As they legally have sovereignty over their debris in space, they are the only ones that can clean it up. A governance instrument that could make them do so would be preferable to the time consuming process of creating an international treaty.

Space, small states, and sovereignty

Questions from the audience also raised issues of sovereignty in space, and unequal access and capabilities of countries, in particular developing countries. Especially for smaller and developing countries, it is difficult to be completely sovereign in space, Bowen noted. If a country cannot launch its satellite into space, it is dependent on another country with an adequate launch system.

Yet, there is a multipolar distribution of power in space, as there are more countries capable of launching objects into space. This means that today, there are more options for small countries to gain access to space at a lower cost. Small countries can go shopping for access to space within alliances and geopolitical relationships on Earth. In other words, despite legitimate questions of sovereignty, there are more options for smaller countries to acquire or launch satellites.

From individual scientists to international cooperation: science diplomacy in action

The individual level of cooperation between scientists, even on an informal level, has always existed, Mauduit emphasised. This kind of cooperation might not have an observable or direct impact on foreign policy and national security strategy. Yet, it is important to consider examples such as the Pugwash conference when assessing the contribution of scientists to diplomacy and creating a more peaceful world in particular. Using the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project as an example, Mauduit stressed the ability of scientists to create links between countries whose formal relations are impaired.

Also, major scientific organisations, such as the European Southern Observatory, and the Square Kilometre Array in South Africa, that involve many countries, have been started by civilian scientists and received help by governments later on.  At the framework level, scientific advice to governments is a recent development – there are only about 10 countries in the world that have a scientific advisor to the ministry of foreign affairs.


Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia

Related events

Load more

Related resources

Load more
YouTube player

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog