Conflict resolution in space: First hotline since the Cold War

The United States and China are trying to avoid space wars, so they have set up a hotline for easy communication as both move further into the final frontier.

China Daily/Reuters
The Long March-3B rocket carrying the Chang'e-3 lunar probe blasts off from the launch pad at Xichang Satellite Launch Center Dec. 2, 2013. The Chang'e-3 lunar probe comprises a lander and a moon rover called "Yu Tu" (Jade Rabbit) deployed to explore the surface of the moon.

It is not in the best interests of the United States and China to have the next "Star Wars" installment be based on a true story, so the two ambitious space-exploring nations are taking preventative action.

The two governments have set up a direct hotline to communicate about space operations. The countries are supposed to use the hotline to discuss any collisions or plans that might impact the other nation's space operations, Sam Jones for the Financial Times reports 

"We’ve also made it clear that we will do what is necessary to protect the space assets of the United States," US Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose told the Times. "We all have a lot to lose."

The hotline shortens communication between Washington and Beijing by several steps. Officials previously routed messages through the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This meant they sent messages from the Joint Space Operations Center "to the Pentagon to the state department, to the US embassy in Beijing, and then on to a contact there," Mr. Rose told the Times. Then the process would begin again on the Chinese side.

Shortening that line of communication by cutting out the middlemen is a step forward for the solar system, as the US will now have structures in place to handle problems that may arise with China, a growing power in the space industry. It marks a move to try and prevent conflict in explored space, which would cause significant damage to the US economy and military operations. 

"Our societies are becoming more and more dependent on space," Patricia Lewis, research director at Chatham House international affairs think-tank in London, told the Times. 

Establishing a special hotline between aeronautical powerhouses is not without precedent. The US kept a direct line of communication open with the Soviet Union even during the tense moments of the Cold War to prevent a mistake from becoming a crisis. 

Such a development is a long time coming, as an incident occurred back in 2007 that revealed the problems resulting from conflicts in space. China conducted its first successful test of an anti-satellite weapon and blew up a satellite. The US had previously been the only nation with this kind of weapons capability, and it was a shock not only because the satellite was destroyed but also because it increased space debris dangerously, the BBC reported.  

A hotline such as this is a step in the "settling" process of near space, says Bruce MacDonald, who led the Council on Foreign Relations study of China, space weapons, and US security and is adjunct faculty with the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. 

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Mr. MacDonald compared it to the navigational protocols ships use at sea, so that, regardless of their national origin or ideology, they can pass each other without mishap.

He says that while much of space is empty, the immediate vicinity around Earth is not, so establishing some basic "rules of the road" to prevent unnecessary collisions and miscommunications is in every nation's best interest.

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