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date: 21 January 2019

Space Law and China

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Over the past few years, China has made remarkable achievements in the space sector and become one of the most relevant players in the outer space domain. Highlights of this process have been the deployment in orbit of the first Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, on September 29, 2011; and the landing of the Yutu rover on the lunar surface on December 14, 2013.

While technological developments have occurred at such a rapid pace, the same cannot be said of the regulatory framework governing Chinese space activities, which still lays at its infant stage. Indeed, unlike other major space-faring countries, China lacks comprehensive and uniform national space legislation; as of now, China has enacted two low-level administrative regulations addressing the issues of launching and registration of space objects.

With the growth of the Chinese space program, such a lack of a structured national space law is beginning to show its limits and to create concerns about its negative impact on business opportunities and the ability of China to fully comply with international obligations. One should keep in mind that the international space treaties (China is part to four international space law treaties) are not self-executing, thus requiring States to adopt domestic measures to ensure their effective implementation.

Importantly, Chinese authorities appear to be aware of these issues; as stated by the secretary-general of the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) in 2014, national space law has been listed in the national legislation plan and the CNSA is directly engaged in such a process. However, questions remain as to how this drafting process will be conducted and what legal form and content the law will have. For example, China could either decide to proceed with a gradual approach, consisting in the adoption of laws addressing selected issues to be eventually assembled into one single law; or to directly move to the adoption of one comprehensive law.

In any case, if enacted, a Chinese national space law would represent an important step in the advancement of the Chinese space program and in the progress of international space law as such.