- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

GENEVA — Russia and China, in a direct challenge to the United States at a major U.N. conference on disarmament, yesterday officially proposed a global treaty to ban the use of weapons in space.

The United States, which just floated a proposal for an international pact banning the production of nuclear materials for weapons, argues that the Russian-Chinese proposal for a new space treaty is unrealistic.

Diplomats and private disarmament authorities, while not endorsing the space pact, warned that the Bush administration will have a hard time arguing against some sort of ban, given the widespread feeling that a weapons race in space would hurt the global arms-control regime.

“Weapons deployment in space by one state will inevitably result in a chain reaction,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told representatives of 65 countries attending the Geneva conference, in a clear reference to U.S. ambitions.

“This, in turn, is fraught with a new spiral in the arms race both in space and on Earth,” he said.

Li Baodong, China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told The Washington Times, “We don’t want to see the arms race in outer space. That’s our intention. … We want to see a peaceful use of the universe.”

The United States opposed the idea of an international weapons treaty for space when Moscow first floated the idea in 2002, saying a 1967 treaty banning nuclear arms in space was sufficient.

U.S. officials argue that the Russian-Chinese idea would allow both countries to fire ground-based missiles into space or use satellites as weapons. China’s military in January 2007 fired a ballistic missile that successfully destroyed one of its old weather satellites — an exercise that surprised and jolted Pentagon planners.

“Given the dual nature of space activities, trying to negotiate something with the idea that you can prohibit the deployment of weapons in outer space but not their development is ludicrous,” one State Department official said, speaking on background.

Russia made its proposal after the Kremlin repeatedly criticized President Bush’s plan for a new missile-defense program, and especially the U.S. intention to build part of the infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Despite U.S. denials, the Kremlin sees the plan as a revival of the Reagan-era “Star Wars” idea, targeted again at Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal.

“The plans to deploy a U.S. [anti-missile site] in Eastern Europe do not meet the demands of our time,” Mr. Lavrov said in a lecture he delivered while attending the conference.

“We are being told that that is not directed against Russia. Yet [Otto von] Bismarck said that in military affairs, you have to judge capabilities, not intentions,” he said.

Mr. Lavrov said in an interview that it would be up to the U.N. conferees to decide when formal talks on a space pact could begin. U.S. officials said their priority remains the nuclear-materials ban.

The timing of the talks “is for the conference to decide,” Mr. Lavrov said.

He stressed that Moscow and Beijing for now are seeking only a “substantive discussion” of the space weapons ban — diplomatic jargon for something less than full-fledged treaty talks.

Senior diplomats from Western and developing countries said the high-profile Russian proposal is a sign that the Russians are back as players on the global arms-control stage.

“We’re listening very carefully. There was a wider diplomatic overture and a new assertiveness in international politics and disarmament in the Kremlin,” Austrian U.N. Ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch said in an interview.

Senior arms-control analysts, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Russia and China are concerned that the U.S. military will surge further ahead by dominating space with conventional weapons.

“It’s the global strike capacity that worries Russia, China and others, as the U.S. Air Force would have the capability within 45 minutes to strike any surface on the globe,” said one arms authority.

“It’s equivalent to a Death Star.”

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