By Wade Boese
China backed away from a longstanding demand for immediate negotiation of an outer space treaty in June, creating the slim possibility that the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) might break through an almost four-year impasse, during which it has failed to conduct any negotiations.
The 66-member CD works by consensus and has been deadlocked for the past few years primarily because of a dispute between the United States and China. Washington views a fissile material cutoff treaty, which would ban the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, as the sole issue ripe for negotiation, but Beijing asserts that the prevention of an arms race in outer space is of equal importance and urgency. China had insisted that negotiations on both issues start together or not at all, a linkage strongly opposed by the United States.
China privately informed CD members June 12 that it would no longer insist on immediate outer space negotiations and would settle for less formal discussions with the caveat that the talks be held “with a view to negotiating [a] relevant international legal instrument.”
The U.S. delegation, which previously said Washington would hold talks and exchange views on the subject, has indicated that the new proposal is unacceptable because it prejudices the talks toward concluding an agreement.
One European official in Geneva commented that the significance of the Chinese offer “in the terms of an absolute softening of the Chinese position remains open to debate.”
China still strongly desires an eventual treaty on the outer space issue, evidenced by the June unveiling of a draft working paper on such an accord co-authored with Russia. The draft’s principal element is a prohibition against any type of weapon being stationed in space.
The conference divides each year’s negotiating session into three parts and finished the second part on June 28. Its third and final part begins July 29 and ends September 13.
Any mandate for negotiations agreed on during the final session would expire on September 13. A new agreement needs to be reached again next year to restart the negotiations unless the conference members reached a decision this year that the negotiations would resume automatically.
The conference last agreed to start fissile material cutoff negotiations in August 1998, but the talks were not resumed the following year.