By Wade Boese
For the second consecutive year, the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva closed its annual negotiating session without starting any formal or informal talks on arms control or disarmament issues. Speaking before the final plenary on September 21, Bulgarian Ambassador Petko Draganov, who currently holds the rotating CD presidency, identified nuclear disarmament and the prevention of an arms race in outer space as the two issues preventing the 66 conference members from reaching the required consensus to start any negotiations. The outer space issue, which is associated by many members with U.S. national missile defense (NMD) plans, is the more contentious of the two topics, particularly between China and the United States.
A week before the final plenary, Chinese Ambassador Hu Xiaodi sharply criticized U.S. NMD plans as "seeking unilateral military and strategic superiority" and cautioned that President Bill Clinton's September 1 announcement to not deploy the proposed missile defense did not mean that U.S. plans had been abandoned, only that they had been deferred. Hu argued that outer space negotiations therefore remain "urgent" and that countries need to prevent the "weaponization" of outer space and "safeguard the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty from being scrapped or weakened." While saying China did not oppose negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty—Washington's negotiating priority—Hu concluded that China believed if the CD held cutoff negotiations, then the conference should also start outer space talks.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Grey, who made an August 31 speech calling linkage between negotiations "inappropriate," said he felt compelled to respond to Hu's remarks and deemed the Chinese call for immediate outer space negotiations "unwise and unrealistic." Grey said the United States believes the CD should keep the issue "under review." The United States has stated it would consider discussions, but not more formal negotiations, on outer space and nuclear disarmament. While some other countries also question the need for outer space negotiations, the United States is the most ardent opponent and key obstacle to their commencement.
At the final plenary, Russia declared it saw close linkage between preventing an arms race in outer space and preserving the 1972 ABM Treaty, which prohibits national defenses against strategic ballistic missiles. Russian Ambassador Vasily Sidorov said his country supported negotiations on preventing arms, particularly "strike weapons," from being placed in space. Russia also supports fissile material cutoff negotiations but has not specifically tied the two issues together.
The United States has told the conference that its NMD plans do not involve stationing weapons in space. Speaking on August 31, Grey asserted that the proposed U.S. defense is "terrestrial, not space-based" and that the system's sensor satellites are a "far cry" from the weaponization of outer space. In his September 14 remarks, Hu rhetorically asked if the U.S. defense had nothing to do with space "then why is there the obstinate opposition [to outer space negotiations]?" The United States contends that there is no arms race in outer space and that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and ABM Treaty are sufficient to regulate military activities in space.
In its final report, adopted September 21, the conference requested the current and incoming CD presidents to continue consultations with delegations before the start of next year's negotiating session to explore ways to get work underway when the conference resumes. The CD agreed to three working periods for its 2001 negotiating session: January 22 to March 30, May 14 to June 29, and July 30 to September 14.