Going Farther Together: The U.S.-Japan Space Pact Is an Accelerator

On January 13, the United States and Japan celebrated signing a space partnership agreement that was more than 10 years in the making—the Framework Agreement for Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, for Peaceful Purposes. During the signing ceremony at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Headquarters, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed that the “future of space is collaboration” and this pact will enable both countries to “go farther and learn even more together.”

Q1: How will this framework agreement enable both countries “to go farther and learn even more together”?

A1: If the U.S.-Japan space collaboration partnership was a computer, then the framework agreement would be like adding a hardware accelerator to enhance the overall performance of the computing system. This broad legal agreement will “vigorously promote” the overall bilateral space relationship between Japan and the United States, announced Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida. The exact terms of the agreement, however, have not yet been published. According to NASA, the pact will enable civil space collaboration on advancing space operations and exploration, as well as scientific research, space transportation, and mission assurance. Undoubtedly, the framework reaffirms several preexisting space agreements between the United States and Japan. Recall that Japan was one of the seven original partner countries to join the NASA-led Artemis program and sign the Artemis Accords in 2020. Artemis is an international space exploration initiative to return humans to the moon in 2025 and support a crewed mission to Mars by the end of 2030.

Q2: What additional value will the agreement provide to pre-existing agreements?

A2: Ultimately, the agreement will enable more rapid collaboration between both countries’ civil space programs.  It is both an internationally symbolic and operationally relevant endorsement of the Artemis program. Presently, there are 23 signatory states to the nonbinding Artemis Accords. The most recent signatories were Rwanda and Nigeria, joining in December. On November 16, NASA successfully launched Artemis I, the first in a series of three significant missions to return humans to the moon. In addition, Artemis reached a major milestone with its Space Launch System rocket, which NASA announced enabled the Orion spacecraft to travel “farther than any spacecraft built for astronauts has been before,” NASA announced. The first crewed mission, Artemis II, is slated for May 2024, followed by Artemis III around 2025.

Apart from supporting Artemis’ human spaceflight mission, the framework agreement also reaffirms Japan’s support for the Lunar Gateway project to develop an orbiting lunar research station and support future Mars missions. In November 2022, the United States and Japan signed an agreement to collaborate on the Lunar Gateway project participate in the International Space Station (ISS) Program through 2030. The Japan Times reports that the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will provide specialized batteries to power the Gateway outpost for visiting astronauts and contribute critical infrastructure to help construct the habitation module. The estimated timeline for completing the Gateway is by 2030, however, it is possible that the new bilateral agreement could accelerate this, especially as the ISS will be deorbited at the end of 2030. Lastly, given the agreement’s focus on civil space cooperation, it is also possible it could be used as a vehicle to augment research and development efforts in space debris mitigating technology.

Q3: How will this benefit the competition to develop space debris mitigation technology?

A3: Under the newly signed framework agreement, there is potential for Japan and United States to work together to mitigate the threats posed by orbital debris in low-Earth orbit. Orbital debris—space junk—is a serious, chronic, and indiscriminate threat to all spacefaring and aspiring spacefaring states. NASA reports that orbital debris is the top threat to spacecraft, satellites, and astronauts. When orbital debris collides into other space objects, it triggers a cascading chain reaction of collisions and debris propagation. This chain reaction, also known as the Kessler Syndrome, is a dangerous phenomenon because it renders orbits less accessible for all states to reap the scientific, technological, and economic benefits.

Presently, Japan and China are vying to be the global leader in developing space debris mitigation technology. According to the Pentagon, the risk of overcrowding in low-Earth orbit due to space junk is a grave concern and overdue for examination. In 2021, the Pentagon created the Orbital Prime program under the U.S. Space Force to incentivize the private sector to focus on active debris remediation in outer space. Perhaps under the auspices of the Orbital Prime program and the framework agreement, the United States and Japan can combine forces and talent to enhance space sustainability and security for future generations. As an upcoming opportunity, the United States and Japan will host a Comprehensive Dialogue on Space in March 2023 to further expand on the framework agreement.

Q4: Is it significant the title of the agreement references the “use of outer space for peaceful purposes”?

A4: Yes, it is meaningful because it affirms the landmark Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and echoes the language in the preamble about “the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.” But what does peaceful purposes mean? Surprisingly, the Outer Space Treaty does not define “peaceful purposes.” 

While Article IV of the treaty does prohibit certain weapons in space, the treaty itself “does not declare that space itself must be used for peaceful purposes.” The majority view held by states such as the United States is that peaceful refers to “non-aggressive activities” like scientific research, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and transmitting navigation and communication signals. The Department of Defense’s 2020 Defense Space Strategy emphasizes the need for cooperating with allies and partners to ensure space stability. As early as 1966, however, a minority of states, such as Japan, India, Mongolia, and Iran, interpreted the treaty more narrowly by claiming that it demilitarizes space by requiring space be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. During the Legal Subcommittee of the UN General Assembly’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space during the subcommittee's fifth session in 1966, the Iranian delegate stated the “draft treaty [of the Outer Space Treaty] should also stipulate that the exploration and use of outer space should serve only peaceful purposes.” Concerned about the insufficient protections to celestial bodies in the event of a misunderstanding among state parties in both the USSR draft and United States draft of the treaty, the Japanese delegate, Toshio Yamazaki, emphasized that “great care” should be taken to “persevere the resources and milieu.” Japan’s first national law on space development, the Basic Space Law of 2008, highlighted a shifting in thinking about “peaceful purposes” and national defense in outer space. Japanese space law expert, Hiroko Yotsumoto, explains that before 2008, Japan’s national policy prohibited using space for national defense: “However, in recognition of the global development of the space industry and its international circumstances, it was imperative for Japan to urgently expand its space activities.” A little over a decade later, in 2021, Japan established its military space squadron, the Space Domain Mission Unit, which is scheduled to be operational in 2023. In support of that objective, on January 17, Japan’s Geo-based Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) received the first of two scheduled space surveillance payloads from U.S. Space Command to boost space surveillance network capabilities in the Eurasian theater.

Given the early differences of interpretation around this term, the signing of the framework agreement demonstrates growth in understanding how space national defense and the use of space for peaceful purposes may coexist. Fundamentally, peaceful purposes is about being a good steward of space. Overall, the U.S.-Japan framework agreement brings renewed energy and potential for both nations to practice strategic leadership in demonstrating what it means to be a good steward of space.

Zhanna L. Malekos Smith, JD, is a senior associate with the Aerospace Security Project and adjunct fellow in the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and an affiliate faculty with the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where she also serves as a fellow with the Army Cyber Institute. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author and not those of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project, and Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Strategic Technologies Program