Current status of China’s National Space Law

Dr. Fabio Tronchetti works as a Co-Director of the Institute of Space Law and Strategy and as a Zhuoyue Associate Professor at Beihang University, Beijing (China). He also holds the position of Adjunct Professor of Comparative National Space Law at the School of Law of the University of Mississippi (United States). Previously, he worked as an Associate Professor at the School of Law of the Harbin Institute of Technology (China) and as Lecturer at the International Institute of Air and Space Law, Leiden University (the Netherlands).

He holds a PhD in International Space Law (Leiden University), an Advanced LL.M in International Relations (Bologna University, Italy) and studied at the University of Cambridge, England (UK). He is Member of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL), European Centre for Space Law (ECSL), the Asian Society of International Law (ASIL) and the Italian Branch of the International Law Association (ILA).

Dr. Tronchetti is the recipient of the 2019 International Institute of Space Law (IISL) Young Achiever Award, the co-recipient of the 2015 International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Social Science Award for the book ‘Handbook on Space Law (co-authored with Prof. von der Dunk) and the recipient of the 2007 Diederiks-Verschoor award.

Interview by Alfonso Delgado-Bonal.

China is on its way to becoming a major space power in terms of technological development, but is there a regulatory framework applicable to Chinese space activities?

If you are thinking about a uniform and comprehensive national space law, no, China does not have such a thing. The reason is that during the first three decades of its space program, China focused its attention on closing the technological gap with the US or Russia rather than working on the legal framework. However, this does not mean that China lacks regulation to govern specific aspects of space activities. 

At the moment, China counts with legal instruments for the registration and licensing of objects, and a more recent document on Space Debris. China is part of the Outer Space Treaty (OST, 1967), which is not self-executing and therefore requires national regulations. China passed those legislative instruments to implement the requirements to “register” space objects, and to authorize the launch of objects in outer space. These are departmental regulations, one of the lowest ranks, but sufficient to comply with the OST. 

Also, like many other countries, China has adopted an Interim Instrument with regard to space debris. It requires the operators of space objects to minimize and control the release of debris during and after operations.

With China becoming more and more involved in a variety of space activities, is that regulatory framework going to change?

If you are talking about developing a comprehensive regulation on space activities, that seems as an unlikely scenario in the short term, due to the obstacles that such a drafting process entails. Officially, a national space law is on the agenda of the Chinese law-making bodies but it is not their highest priority. The trend is that China may pass new instruments to address a specific kind of space activity. Recently, China enacted a legal instrument to regulate the manufacturing of privately-owned rockets used to launch space objects. The process of regulating specific topics is easier and is similar to US space law in this sense, as something is added when the need for it arises.

The importance of space is increasing in China. In July 2019, China’s National Defense in the New Era white paper included outer space and cyberspace at the same level as the nuclear force in China’s national security, classifying them as “the major security fields.”

What do you mean by white papers?

White papers are documents expedited every five years that highlight the accomplishments during that period in specific matters. There are white papers about many things, like defense or space. The latest space white paper was in 2016 so a new one is expected in 2021. 

These documents are meant for international consumption. They are not internal documents nor legislation, but, on the contrary, are a way for China to show the progress they have done. 

You mentioned earlier a recent legal instrument for rockets to launch space objects. Is China a “launching state”?

China is indeed a launching state and even provides launching services for foreign objects. In all cases, registration is requested for all space objects launched from the territory of China, even if the space object belongs to a foreign country/entity. 

Being a launching state has implications specified in the space treaties. The launching state is internationally liable for the damage that the object may cause. This means that, even if the object is owned by a private or foreign operator at the time of the damage, China would still be responsible. Other countries like the US only register domestically owned space objects because they argue they cannot control the object and thus cannot guarantee that the operator is following the rules. With the growing space sector in China, this may change in the near future. 

If I am correct, China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) is the sole commercial organization authorized by the Chinese government to provide satellites, commercial launch services and to carry out international space cooperation. Is it the only private space company in China?

CGWIC is basically an operating arm of this big enterprise that is called CASC (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation), which is a massive enterprise with 130-140 companies within it, and one of those companies is CGWIC. CGWIC is the one who represents the country to foreign customers for launching, but it’s not really private, the board is controlled by the government. 

There are also companies like linkspace, ispace, that are ‘private’ in the generally understood meaning of this term, in the sense that they do not receive public money but rely on private investments. That is the new trend here. Their activities are certainly controlled by Chinese authorities but these companies are funded by private capital and don’t follow instructions by the government. How many of those startups will be successful? Time will tell.

In the last decade, China has carried out a wide range of space activities besides those related to the Moon, What can you tell us about the Chinese navigation satellite system?

Beidou is the Chinese equivalent of GPS. China created the Beidou navigation system because they were dependent on the GPS, operated by the United States Space Force, and that was problematic. Since July, it has free global coverage. 

Up to date, there is no dedicated legislation for satellite navigation but China has expressed its intention to provide an adequate regulatory framework. In 2016, they published the Beidou white paper, one of the documents we discussed earlier. The lack of a proper regulatory framework rises some concerns such as how liability claims deriving from the use of the BDS signal will be handled. 

The discussion about space resources is very active these days. I wonder what is China’s position when dealing with the extraction and utilization of resources obtained in outer space.

Chang’e 5 returned to China on December 16, 2020. It contains samples from moon rocks and dust. It was a very difficult mission and its success represents an important milestone for the Chinese space program. With regard to that mission, is important to say that China is going to share with the international community samples of the materials. That’s already official. 

In terms of the extraction of resources, there is no official position. There is no law or official document talking about it. The position China gave in the UN, specifically in COPUOS, is that any utilization of space resources must be in accordance with the OST and that a set of internationally recognized principles to govern such utilization would be the preferable option. It is highly unlikely that China would join the US sponsored Artemis Accords.

Dr. Fabio Tronchetti is the Co-Director of the Institute of Space Law and Strategy and as a Zhuoyue Associate Professor at Beihang University, Beijing (China). He also holds the position of Adjunct Professor of Comparative National Space Law at the School of Law of the University of Mississippi (United States).

follow me
The space sector is coming to maturity
Cyber is perhaps the most challenging part about space interaction

Leave Your Comment