Rules to Explore the Heavens: an Overview of Chinese National Space Law

Updated: Oct 1

Launch of Tianwen-1 from Wenchang on Hainan, 23 July 2020 ©️ China News Service / CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Space: the Final Frontier. There is nothing as mysterious and fascinating as the vast, largely unknown universe beyond our home planet. After centuries of humankind’s quiet admiration and intense study of the night skies, in 1957, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth: it was the dawn of the Space Age. Soon other countries started their own national space programs – of course, the main competition was between the US and the USSR, in what would be later known as the Cold War’s Space Race.

On April 24, 1970, the People’s Republic of China also entered the Space Age by launching its first artificial satellite in orbit. It was called 东方红一号 (Dōngfānghóng Yīhào) after the revolutionary song “The East is Red”, which the spacecraft was able to broadcast. Since this memorable date, China’s journey into outer space has yielded major successes, such as the launch of the core section of its 天宫 (Tiāngōng, “Heavenly Palace”) space station, named 天和 (Tiānhé,“Harmony of the Heavens”), in April 2021 and the landing of the 天问-1 (Tianwen-1, “Quest for Heavenly Truth”) probe on Mars in May of the same year (Xinhua, 2021).

Yet unlike other spacefaring nations, China lacks a general, comprehensive space law. This can be explained by the fact that the Chinese space program focused for a long time solely on filling in the technological gap with the superpowers, temporarily postponing the enhancement of a national legal framework (Delgado-Bonal, 2021). The lack of substantial space legislation could also be linked, some suggest, to the strong military character of the original space program – even though today the civil and commercial projects are growing in importance, they could be complying with regulations of military nature, largely not disclosed (Yeshchuk and Vasina, 2019).

This does not mean that there is no regulation for space activities in China. The first documents to consider are the five Space Treaties negotiated and signed under the United Nations’ umbrella between 1967 and 1979. China has ratified the first four of them. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 provides a list of core principles: for example, no nation can declare sovereignty or place weapons of mass destruction in space. It also mentions other peculiar space issues which have been later dealt with more in depth by the following treaties.

The Rescue Agreement of 1968 focuses on the rescue and assistance of astronauts in distress, who must be promptly returned to their launching State. The Liability Convention of 1972 affirms that the launching State is “absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object”. Lastly, the Registration Convention of 1975 provides that the States shall maintain a national register of the space objects they launch and communicate to the Secretary-General of the United Nations its core information such as registration number, orbital parameters, and general function of the object.

Written in the first decades of the Space Age, these Treaties provide a good legal framework for space activities; however, two elements should be taken into consideration. First, the current technological advancements have led many to call for new negotiations to update and enhance the existing international agreements. Second, several provisions in the treaties cannot be directly applied but rather need to be implemented at a national level (Tronchetti, 2019). This leads us back to consider the existence and content of a national Chinese Space law.

As previously mentioned, there is no basic, comprehensive legislation in this field. However, there are some specific provisions in the form of administrative regulations. For example, to comply with the Registration Convention, in 2001 the Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND) together with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs published the “Provisions and Procedures for the Registration of Space Objects”. These provisions apply to any space object launched from the territory of China, as well as those launched abroad by China in cooperation with other States (article 3). The obligation to register falls upon any subject who launches or procures the launching of a space object (article 4).

The procedure is devised as follows: within sixty days after the object has entered into orbit, the registrant must provide all the information required by article 6 (e.g.: registration number, owner, launching information, orbital parameters) to the COSTIND. If any major change shall occur, such as a change of orbit or a severe malfunctioning, the registrant is also required to communicate it within sixty days from its occurrence. The COSTIND maintains the National Register, which includes special sections for Hong Kong and Macau. Within sixty days from the registration, the COSTIND shall register the object internationally at the Secretariat of the United Nations through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The increasing private investments in the space sector led the COSTIND to publish another administrative regulation in 2002, the “Interim Measures on the Administration of Permits for Civil Space Launch Projects”. The examination, approval and supervision of such projects is reserved to the COSTIND. The application must be submitted to the COSTIND nine months prior to when the launch is programmed to take place, and the Commission shall examine it within thirty days. If all the requirements are met, a license will be issued along with its expiration date.

A major issue with regard to space activities is the creation of debris. Space debris is a term used to indicate any sort of man-made material which is situated in outer space while not being operative. It can refer to big satellites which have stopped working, as well as to miniscule particles of nuclear reactor coolant dispersed in the Earth’s orbit. Because of the speed of the orbits, even such a small debris can cause damage to other space objects upon impact, creating more debris. The issue was brought to the attention of the international community by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978. Kessler argued that this would lead to an exponential increase in the quantity of debris and this would also, in turn, increase the likelihood of collisions, to the point of threatening the safe use of some orbits around the Earth.

The international legal response to this has been the drafting of non-binding legal measures called Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, devised first by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) in 2002 and later by the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) in 2007. These are best practices recommended to the national space agencies to reduce the production of debris – not all of them are respected worldwide but many have become of regular application. In 2010, China also implemented a national regulation on the subject, once again in the form of an administrative document: the “Space Debris Interim Instrument”. This includes a list of technical standards that must be included in the application for a license and observed in the launch and operation of a spacecraft. The management of space debris deriving from civil space activities is, once again, the COSTIND.

The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) is well aware of the necessity to improve space legislation and considers it a priority. The special task force set up to address the issue has decided in favor of a gradual evolution, starting from administrative documents and going towards a comprehensive space law (Zhao, 2007). More than a decade has passed since, and China still needs to improve its national space legislation. However, outer space is becoming increasingly important from an economic and military perspective and this could become an incentive to move in this direction. The numerous joint projects between China and other countries in this area are also another favorable element that should not be overlooked (Tronchetti, 2019).

It may not seem very poetic to consider the marvels of outer space from juridical lenses. But in any human activity, law is needed to provide a clear framework within which to operate – and such a peculiar environment as space adds an even further level of complexity. Because of the major role China plays today beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, and as a launching State (i.e., able to launch spacecraft in the skies), it is reasonable to expect the enhancement of its national space regulation. Rules are always required, even when exploring the Heavens.

Giulia Alessandra Foti is an Italian law graduate in love with her country, proud to be European, and passionate about anything related to China. She has a degree in Music and will spend hours talking about history and outer space. Huge fan of football and Formula 1. You can find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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