THE IRAQ war may not be the worst of what President Bush is doing. Last month the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva adjourned, completely deadlocked. This is the body that since 1959 has hammered out the great arms control and reduction treaties -- the regime of cooperation and "verified trust" that enabled the Cold War to end without nuclear holocaust. The last agreement to come out of Geneva was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, and the incoming Bush administration's attitude toward the whole enterprise was signaled by its explicit approval of the Senate's rejection of that treaty. Now the issue is the grave question of weapons in space, and for several years, while China and other nations have pushed for an agreement aimed at preventing an arms race in outer space, the United States has insisted that no such treaty is necessary. Last August China offered a compromise in its demands, hoping for a US moderation of its refusal, but no progress was made.
As of now, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty governs the military uses of space, but China argues that strategic plans openly discussed in the Pentagon, including the Missile Defense Program, involve deployments that will violate that treaty. In the words of John Steinbruner and Jeffrey Lewis, writing in Daedalus, "The Chinese were particularly alarmed by a 1998 long-range planning document released by the then United States Space Command. That document outlined a concept called global engagement -- a combination of global surveillance, missile defense, and space-based strike capabilities that would enable the United States to undertake effective preemption anywhere in the world and would deny similar capability to any other country."
If the Chinese were alarmed in 1998 by such "full-spectrum dominance," as US planners call it, imagine how much more threatened they feel now that Pentagon fantasies of preemption and permanent global supremacy have become official Bush policies. For decades, "deterrence" and "balance" were the main notes of Pentagon planning, but now "prevention" and "dominance" define the US posture. Such assertions can be made in Washington with only good intentions, but they fall on foreign ears as expressions of aggression.
When it comes to space, the Chinese have good reason for thinking of themselves as the main object of such planning, which is why they are desperate for a set of rules governing military uses of space. (At the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a study of such rules is underway codirected by Steinbruner and the academy's Martin Malin).
Two weeks ago China put a man in space, a signal of China's arrival -- and of the arrival of this grave question. Beijing has invested heavily in commercial development of space and will become a significant economic competitor in that sphere. But such peaceful competition presumes a framework of stability, and it is inconceivable that China can pursue a mainly nonmilitary space program while feeling vulnerable to American military dominance. China has constructed a minimal deterrent force with a few dozen nuclear-armed ICBMs, but US "global engagement" based on a missile defense, will quickly undercut the deterrence value of such a force. The Chinese nuclear arsenal will have to be hugely expanded.
Meanwhile, America's "high frontier" weapons capacity will put Chinese commercial space investments at risk. No nation with the ability to alter it would tolerate such imbalance, and over the coming decades there is no doubt that China will have that capacity. Washington's refusal to negotiate rules while seeking permanent dominance and asserting the right of preemption is forcing China into an arms race it does not want. Here, potentially, is the beginning of a next cold war, with a nightmare repeat of open-ended nuclear escalation.
Today, on the surface, US-Chinese relations seem good. Partly in response to Beijing, President Bush, while in Asia, moderated his refusal to offer North Korea assurances that the United States will not be an aggressor. Bush met with China's President Hu Jintao and reiterated US congratulations on China's man in space. This week China's Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan is meeting in Washington with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But a dark undercurrent runs between the two nations, and it is fraught with danger. The problem is America's refusal to discuss the problem.
What makes this situation so ominous is that the Pentagon's aggressive strategic planning for space and the Bush administration's rejection of treaty restraints are not only unchallenged in the US political discourse but are largely unnoted. Was the issue even hinted at in the Democrats' debate in Detroit? What Democrat has raised the question of the sabotaged Conference on Disarmament? Who is warning of the Bush-sponsored resumption of the arms race? And where is the defense of the idea, once sacred to Americans, that outer space marks a threshold across which human beings must not drag the ancient perversion of war?
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.