By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States wants to open a regular dialogue with China on outer space in an effort to create "rules for the road" and reduce the risk of misunderstandings, a U.S. defense official said on Tuesday.
China is making major investments in space and, unlike in the United States, distinguishing between China's civil and military space sectors is difficult because "the two are essentially one," Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said.
The United States recognizes that China is a "major space-faring country," he said.
China is developing a broader range of space-borne capabilities to ward off adversaries, including jammers and lasers, which provides added incentive for the United States to open a channel for talks.
"We've actually proposed to establish a regular dialogue with China on space," Schulte said.
"We're waiting to pick the date for the first discussion, but we're ready to go in to talk about this strategy, to talk about what we think responsible use of space looks like," he told a defense writers group. "To talk about ways to create rules for the road, and to talk about ways to reduce the risk of mishap or miscalculation or misunderstandings."
The U.S. offer of talks on space is similar to other proposals Washington has made, with mixed results, to increase China's transparency and ease Sino-American flashpoints, such as maritime operations in the Pacific.
Both the United States and China have a history of concerns about the other's operations in space.
In 2008 the U.S. military shot down a disabled U.S. spy satellite with a missile, saying it posed a danger to populated areas. Russia and China both expressed concerns.
That incident came a year after China shattered one of its aging weather satellites with a ground-based missile, which drew international criticism and prompted Pentagon worries that China had the ability to target military assets in space.
China is increasingly reliant on space for its military and economy, Schulte said. China has an interest in the responsible use of space and "in making sure that space doesn't somehow become a flashpoint in a future crisis," he said.
The defense official said the 2007 Chinese test of its anti-satellite system created about 14 percent of the debris that U.S. Strategic Command is currently tracking in outer space.
"STRATCOM is tracking over 22,000 objects, and that's only the ones that we can see," Schulte said.
U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska delivers warnings of potential satellite collisions around the world. It has agreements with over 20 commercial owner/operators of satellites worldwide.
"We are getting ready to give it authority to negotiate agreements with foreign countries to share that same information," Schulte said.
Over the last year STRATCOM provided about 2,000 warnings of potential collisions to multiple countries, Schulte said. That included almost 150 warnings to China -- "and a lot of those warnings were for potential conjunctions (collisions) between a Chinese satellite and debris from the weather satellite that they shot in 2007," he said.
By giving STRATCOM authority to negotiate with foreign countries, the goal was to develop relationships and obtain information from those countries about scheduled maneuvers and positioning of their satellites, Schulte said.