Commentary | Time for U.S. To Collaborate with China in Space

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The U.S.-China bilateral relationship is the most important of the 21st century. In order to maintain the fidelity of this relationship and bring to bear the potential advances in productive and technological capacity it could unlock, a U.S.-China bilateral approach to space exploration is needed. 

Despite the fact that China is a member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and has signed all treaties related to space, members of Congress have prohibited any form of cooperation between NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) since 2011. To initiate a meaningful relationship between the current and future technologists and entrepreneurs of these two great nations, U.S. policymakers must reconsider the cost-benefit trade-offs associated with a long-term commitment to cooperative space exploration with China.

It appears that some preliminary progress has been made regarding the potential for future bilateral U.S.-China cooperation in space. Officials from 30 spacefaring nations met in Washington in January for the International Space Exploration Forum to discuss potential avenues for international space exploration. Among several encouraging remarks made at the gathering, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns stated, “Now is the time to come together to make space exploration a shared global priority, to unlock the mysteries of the universe and accelerate human progress here on Earth.” I could not agree more, but level-headed rhetoric from the State Department is hardly a reason for celebration. The real impediment to the future of bilateral U.S.-China space cooperation is in Congress.

Despite the heavy-handed implementation of restrictions between NASA and CNSA, space exploration and innovation in aerospace technology remain an area of mutual ambition for both countries. Nevertheless, to prepare the ground for U.S.-China bilateral collaboration in space, the discussion must be depoliticized. To make meaningful progress on this front, the illegitimacy underlying the NASA-CNSA restrictions must be exposed and the inhibitory voices in Congress directly challenged. Though I am well aware of the political roadblocks facing the realization of NASA-CNSA bilateral cooperation, I remain committed to it because — in my estimation — the downside risks of working with China in space have been exaggerated. 

There are several inconsistencies inherent in the threat-based rationale on which the restrictions have been predicated. The existence of significant risk associated with sensitive technology transfer during NASA-CNSA collaboration embodies the assumption that the Chinese government itself would use CNSA as a vehicle for carrying out activities to nefarious ends. But by making this assumption about the NASA-CNSA relationship, Congress is implicitly making the same assumption about other technology-intensive agencies of the federal government like the Department of Energy (DoE) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). Curiously, Congress doesn’t seem to care about the supposed “sensitive technology risk” when it comes to the DoE and NIH, which both cooperate bilaterally with their Chinese counterparts. If sensitive technology transfer is the concern, the potential theft of the commercial applications of proprietary technologies in development by these two government agencies dwarf those in development at NASA.

As for the cyberespionage concern, adequate security against Chinese hackers is the responsibility of the U.S. intelligence community. As such, cyberespionage remains a significant threat whether or not NASA is ever permitted to collaborate with China, and it remains to be seen how the vulnerability of U.S. networks would be intensified under a collaborative effort with China.

The voices that have tirelessly echoed these concerns blatantly ignore the possibility of the establishment of a third-party regulatory body that could bring enhanced transparency and oversight to NASA-CNSA collaboration. This arm of the government could effortlessly be created and immediately be put in place to address the concerns of those opposed to cooperation for whatever reason.

It should be pointed out that the risks of bilateral cooperation with China (assuming they exist) would differ very little from those that must also be implicit in bilateral cooperation with Russia. U.S.-Russia collaboration in space exists and flourishes and is — for the most part — decoupled from the political divide that differentiates the two countries in general politics. Obviously, human rights concerns, the threat of cyberespionage and disagreements over how to handle tensions in Syria, Iran and Ukraine have not prevented us from collaborating with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and rightly so. Both parties recognize that our mutual interests — on everything from nuclear proliferation to terrorism and space exploration — are worth making the painful compromises that we must on issues where we disagree. In the same way, a similar approach can and should be taken with China.

Fearmongering about the national security concerns of working with a powerful, politically dissimilar nation in space is no more persuasive today than it was in 1975, when similar voices warned against the imaginary hazards of carrying out joint rendezvous and docking procedures with the former Soviet Union during the Apollo-Soyuz test project. Those who opposed the Apollo-Soyuz test project — and subsequent collaboration with the former Soviet Union — have been proved definitively wrong. Given the similar geopolitical tension surrounding the potential for collaboration with China, it would appear that Congress not only is making a mistake for the reasons mentioned above, but has taken the wrong side of history. History has taught us that while confrontational political rationales may provide strong motivation early on, they eventually cede to progress. Not surprisingly, a strong voice opposing the NASA-CNSA restrictions is NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who has supported bilateral cooperation and consistently urged Congress to relax the restrictions.

The damaging NASA-CNSA restrictions not only are laying the groundwork for a turbulent geopolitical environment in the coming years, but are depriving the next generation of the benefits of cooperative stability. As a young aspiring aerospace engineer-entrepreneur, I feel that regulators have taken their myopic mindset too far. At the very least, I feel strongly that NASA and CNSA should explore new methods of dialogue rather than no dialogue at all.

 

Andrew M. Johnson writes on cybersecurity, sensitive technology and the aerospace industry. He is an undergraduate physics major at Clemson University and will be attending Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China in the fall.