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Lack of rules governing space race increases risk of US-China conflict, report warns

The failure to develop rules for the way nations conduct themselves in space could lead to miscommunication and even “grave consequences” between the US and China, a report has warned.

A policy paper from the Lau China Institute at King’s College London has called for a greater understanding of China and its ambitions in space to avoid future conflict.

Unlike other conflict areas, the world has failed to sign agreements on safe space management, the report states.

It adds that the reliance that the US and UK have on space could encourage hostile powers to conduct pre-emptive strikes on their satellites and infrastructure.

Meanwhile, China’s increasing presence and capabilities in space are “notable” which triggers significant reverberations across the domain and below.

Space is now considered crucial for key functions of modern states, but its remoteness means monitoring is difficult alongside the “hazy” rules that govern its usage.

Report researcher Dr Mark Hilborne warned that this failure to develop rules for space has led to an increased risk of miscalculation or miscommunication for the UK as well.

“The UK must work with other countries to build consensus as to the safe management of space,” he said.

“The UK is now a leading nation in the space economy and space technology. If the UK wishes to maintain this success, it must develop an understanding and an international agreement on making space free from conflict. This includes the development of clear lines of communication and understanding between the West and China.”

The report also finds that a greater understanding of China and its ambitions in space has been slow to materialise although it clearly follows a “highly competitive agenda”.

Furthermore, the report states that China’s primary objective is to eclipse the US in space capabilities by mid-century, efforts that are underpinned by a suite of counterspace capabilities.

“This constitutes part of a wider challenge to the US across the full spectrum of national power,” the report finds.

“The tensions that arise due to competition in space trigger particular sensitivities, and these will need careful management to avoid space becoming a domain of outright hostility.”

The competition between China and the West was laid bare last month when a suite of probes from China, Nasa and the UAE all landed on, or began orbiting Mars within weeks of one another.

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