On September 24, 2021, leaders from the four countries that make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad)—Australia, India, Japan, and United States—issued a joint statement that mentioned, for the first time, a partnership on matters related to outer space. For India’s civilian-led commercial space industry, the statement was an encouraging sign of opportunities to come.
Even today, much discussion about outer space remains focused on the military. For instance, former U.S. president Donald Trump’s decision to constitute the U.S. Space Force, a new branch of the country’s armed forces, was met with widespread skepticism and derision. India has two military-focused agencies—the Defence Space Agency and the Defence Space Research Agency—that are entrusted with creating space warfare weapons and technologies.
Civilian or commercial space ventures, however, tend to spur wider public interest. The recent launch of SpaceX’s Inspiration4, a commercial spaceflight mission crewed by private citizens, was widely celebrated. It also marked a sign of things to come, as space travel becomes more accessible to the general public through the involvement of private enterprise.
Now, for the first time, the Quad has included outer space matters within the scope of its projects—a particularly encouraging sign for the future of private enterprise–dominated civilian and commercial space ventures. To bolster its own private space sector, India should look to further engage with the other Quad countries on outer space.
The Quad’s statement critically mentions that the four countries will “consult on rules, norms, guidelines and principles for ensuring the sustainable use of outer space.” At first glance, this phrase is clearly an attempt to tackle the menace of orbital debris—accumulated space exploration paraphernalia, such as dead satellites—through optimal debris management practices.1 In this area, India’s commitment is especially welcome. In 2019, India was on the receiving end of a relatively muted global outcry after it conducted an anti-satellite test, Mission Shakti, that produced some orbital debris.2
Most orbital debris management practices, however, have so far focused on mitigation—that is, limiting the creation of new debris rather than dealing with existing debris.3 While orbital debris management should be the mainstay of all public efforts to promote the sustainable use of outer space, involving private actors to encourage innovative approaches may augment these efforts. In fact, the Quad joint statement has now arguably provided a framework for private space actors to play such a role.
A closer look at the Quad joint statement, however, suggests that the term “sustainable use of outer space” may have wider connotations. Indeed, the United Nations secretary general’s recent report on “reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors” states that sustainable use of space is promoted through “responsible actions and activities.”4 The report lists one example of responsible behavior as “continuing efforts to develop mutual confidence-building measures, including on norms and guidelines for the . . . exploitation of resources.” It goes on to say that while legally binding instruments may take time, confidence-building measures should be encouraged in the interim as the two are not mutually exclusive.
In light of the UN’s statement, the Artemis Accords—the U.S.-led effort to return a human to the moon by 2024—take on more significance. The accords are viewed in some quarters as contentious since they provide that “extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation” under the Outer Space Treaty (OST)—a treaty that is widely considered to be part of customary international law.5 For those concerned that this may impact what is understood as national appropriation, it is worth considering that the United States has an incentive not to do so: under Article VI of the OST, a country is responsible for any violations by its nationals.
So far, twelve countries have already signed on to the Artemis Accords, which were introduced only in October 2020. All Quad members are signatories, save for India. But India has similarly interpreted the OST by committing to maintain outer space as the “common heritage of mankind”6—a phrase widely associated with the principle that all countries should collectively benefit from any exploitation of space.7
However, this principle, when articulated at the time, arguably neglected the possibility that private commercial players would eventually become major actors in outer space as well. The OST was adopted during the Cold War–era space race between the United States and Soviet Union, among fears that one of them could assert sovereignty over celestial bodies such as the moon. Hence, the prohibition on national appropriation was an important inclusion.
But outer space is no longer the sole preserve of government space agencies. The current prevalence of private commercial players was inconsiderable at the time the OST was signed. But today, it is evident that private enterprise involvement in space is here to stay. There are too many advantages to space-based technologies, including GPS, weather monitoring, and the mapping of crop patterns.
While orbital spaces are finite, the number of players venturing into commercial space activities is not. What is now needed is a road map for the possible exploitation of outer space resources. Without clear guidance, regulatory arbitrage in the form of ad hoc processes adopted by each country may lead to more orbital congestion and, consequently, more debris in outer space. Considering the Quad’s commitment to a larger international rules-based order, the time may be ripe to have a discussion on the need for such a framework. India would do well to participate in forging a consensus.
India needs partners in this domain. Considering the long-term gestation period of most space-related projects, India would do well to partner with reliable spacefaring countries that have a dependable track record cultivating strong private players in space. The Artemis Accords would be a good starting point, considering the large number of signatories with capabilities in the space economy.
Every U.S. administration since former president Dwight Eisenhower has issued a national space policy. Perhaps it is time for India to do the same. To begin articulating a coherent space policy that encourages a role for private actors, India’s participation in multilateral mechanisms like the Quad—or the rapidly growing ranks of the Artemis Accords—may just be the right format. The Quad’s joint statement is a great start, and India’s possible assent to the Artemis Accords should be closely watched.
1 Secure World Foundation, “Space Policy and Sustainability: Issue Briefing for the Biden Administration,” December 2020, https://swfound.org/media/207084/swf_space_policy_issue_briefing_2020_web.pdf, p. 7.
2 Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, Thomas G. Roberts, Tyler Way, and Makena Young, “Space Threat Assessment 2020,” Centre for Strategic and International Studies, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/200330_SpaceThreatAssessment20_WEB_FINAL1.pdf, p. 44.
3 Secure World Foundation, “Space Policy and Sustainability,” p. 8.
4 Report of the UN Secretary General on UN General Assembly Resolution 75/36, July 2021, p. 8/105.
5 Francis Lyall and Paul B Larsen, Space Law: A Treatise (New York: Routledge, 2018), p. 72.
6 India’s submission to the UN General Assembly Resolution 75/36 on “Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviours” was as follows: “It is incumbent on all space faring nations and others to contribute to safeguard outer space as the common heritage of humankind.”
7 The Moon Agreement of 1979 also uses the phrase under Article 11.1 that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.” Under the agreement, the phrase was understood to completely prohibit any appropriation. The agreement however only has 18 signatories, including India (which has not ratified it), with none of the major spacefaring countries such as the United States, Russia, or China having signed it. However, a similar phrase is also used in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which permits exploitation of seabed resources that are outside the territorial jurisdictions of any nation. Therefore, the term “common heritage of mankind” depends on the context within which it is used.