Cooperation with China is a hot-button issue in political and advocacy circles. Whether or not to engage China in current U.S. outer space efforts is hotly debated on Capitol Hill, in academia and among space advocacy groups. Two experts in the field of space policy with differing views make their case for and against outer space cooperation with China.

The Case for Engagement

The National Research Council (NRC) recently released a report on the future of U.S. human spaceflight. Besides advocating a Mars mission the report also advocated pursuing more international collaboration, specifically to include China. That would require a distinct change in U.S. policy. There will likely be resistance to that recommendation from the small but powerful congressional enclave behind the legislatively imposed restrictions on U.S-Sino cooperation since 2011. But the realist approach advocated by the NRC report has a much better chance of serving U.S. security interests than the current ineffectual policy that attempts to isolate and “punish” China for domestic policies.

President Barack Obama met with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao in January 2011. Part of their joint statement addressed the desire for deepened dialogue and interaction in space, which many people interpreted as a new willingness on the part of the United States to work with China, perhaps leading to a cooperative program. U.S.-Sino relations had basically been moribund since the sensationalist 1999 Cox Committee report alleging theft of information on American thermonuclear weapons and transfer of sensitive missile technology by profit-hungry American aerospace companies. Though nonpoliticized analysis from experts at institutions such as Stanford University largely discredited the report, congressional caterwauling successfully pushed the United States into the impossible position of trying to isolate Chinese space activities in a globalized world, and ended up primarily hurting U.S. aerospace companies through the draconian export control measures issued consequent to the Cox Committee report.

But cooperation was not to be. In April 2011, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA and a long-time China hardliner, especially regarding freedom of religion issues, inserted two sentences into funding legislation that prohibits any joint scientific activity between the United States and China that involves NASA or is coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). That legislation has endured. NASA and OSTP remain banned from bilateral activity with China. Though Wolf is retiring in January 2015, speculation regarding potential successors includes individuals with views similar to his.

Wolf’s rationale for banning bilateral U.S.-China relations, given in a 2011 interview, includes three key points. “We don’t want to give them the opportunity to take advantage of our technology, and we have nothing to gain from dealing with them,” Wolf said. “And frankly, it boils down to a moral issue. … Would you have a bilateral program with Stalin?” The three assumptions in that statement are, quite simply, wrong, and counterproductive to U.S. interests.

First, it assumes that working with the United States would give China opportunities not otherwise available and implies that the United States would be doing China a favor. Though China has wanted to participate on the international space station program and was banned from doing so by the United States, it will have its own space station soon. In fact, when China’s space station becomes operational around 2022, it could quickly become the de facto international space station, given that the ISS is currently funded only through 2024, and that China has already invited other countries to visit its facility.

In terms of the U.S. doing China a favor, Chinese politicians are still interested in the ISS for symbolic reasons, specifically, being accepted as part of the international family of spacefaring nations. But many Chinese space professionals fear that cooperation with the United States would just slow them down. American politicians are viewed as fickle and without the political will to see programs to completion, a view not exclusive to China. Further, other countries, including U.S. allies, regularly work with and sell aerospace technology to China. China has not been isolated.

Second, Wolf’s rationale assumes the United States has nothing to gain by working with the Chinese. On the contrary, the United States could learn about how they work — their decision-making processes, institutional policies and standard operating procedures. This is valuable information in accurately deciphering the intended use of dual-use space technology, long a weakness and so a vulnerability in U.S. analysis. Working together on an actual project where people confront and solve problems together, perhaps beginning with a space science or space debris project where both parties can contribute something of value, builds trust on both sides, trust that is currently severely lacking. It also allows each side to understand the other’s cultural proclivities, reasoning and institutional constraints with minimal risk of technology sharing.

From a practical perspective, working with China could diversify U.S. options for reaching the ISS. The need for diversification has become painfully apparent consequent to Vladimir Putin’s expansionist actions in Ukraine resulting in U.S. sanctions. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin subsequently stated, “I propose that the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline.”

And finally, Wolf stated that the United States should not work with China based on moral grounds. While clearly the United States would prefer not to work with authoritarian regimes, it has done so in war and in peacetime when it has served American interests. That is the basis of realism: Serve American interests first. While the United States would prefer not to work with Stalin, we continue to work with Putin when it benefits us to do so. Were the U.S. not to work with authoritarian regimes, it would have few to work with at all in the Middle East.

We live in a globalized world. Attempting to isolate Chinese space activities has proved futile, and in fact pushed China and other countries into developing indigenous space industries — totally beyond any U.S. control — that they might have done otherwise. High fences around areas of technology where the United States has a monopoly — and there are few of those left — combined with a realist approach to working with China when and were we can, will allow the U.S. to lead rather futilely playing whack-a-mole, trying to beat back anticipated Chinese space achievements.

The Case Against Engagement

One definition of “cooperation” in terms of ecology is the beneficial but inessential interaction between two species in a community. Considering the nature of geopolitics, this is an apt definition for “cooperation” between states and forms a good basis for analysis in particular when discussing outer space cooperation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Utilizing this definition, two questions arise: First, would outer space cooperation between the United States and China be beneficial to the national security interests of the United States? Second, is outer space cooperation with China essential to the national security interests of the United States? Not surprisingly, national security is a focal point of the analysis given the inherent nature of states to consider their own interests before those of another, especially given that the United States and China are geopolitical competitors.

When states, including geopolitical competitors, cooperate, there is always an unspoken premise that aside from the stated political goal each participant will have the unstated goals of reaping short- and long-term benefits of resources belonging to the other. In terms of cooperation between China and the United States, any stated goal of cooperation would implicate technology, intellectual property, scientific methodologies and funding. Given this presupposition, does China possess an advantage in any of these areas that would benefit the national security interests of the United States in a partnership? The answer is to both questions is cumulatively no.

China has made significant strides in its space program, and its accomplishments follow in the footsteps of the outer space activities performed by the United States. China does have the perception of momentum in its space program and uses current technology to facilitate its achievements, but it still lags behind. Cooperation with China would reap no tangible benefits in terms of technology for the United States and in fact would risk exposing outer space technology and methodologies that China could appropriate under the guise of cooperation and incorporate into its own space and military programs.

There is precedent for this concern from China’s participation in the Galileo satellite navigation system. China’s technical partnership with the European Union on the Galileo project led to its application on China’s indigenous Beidou Phase 2 satellite navigation system. The accuracy of the Beidou signal came as a surprise to its European partners as such accuracy was unlikely to be obtained without taking shortcuts. Thus, what began as a cooperative effort between the European Union and China led to China reaping the technological benefit with the resultant national security implications.

Such would be the case with a cooperative effort with the United States. Any effort would expose U.S. technology, and it stands to reason that no matter what safeguards were put in place China would acquire and benefit from that technology. Not only would the United States not benefit from a cooperative effort it would also sacrifice its technological advantage and compromise its national security.

The same rationale applies to funding. Past cooperative efforts with geopolitical competitors has left the United States footing a substantial amount of the bill. Cooperative efforts with the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation have been and continue to be funded substantially by the United States with the other party to the cooperative agreement reaping most of the benefit. Projects such as the Apollo/Soyuz rendezvous mission during the Cold War and the current engagement with the international space station are examples where the United States has provided a disproportionate amount of funding. The current arrangement with the ISS in particular has seen the Russian Federation receiving substantial economic benefit from funding of modules, revenue generated from commercial activities, including space tourism, and revenue received from ferrying of NASA astronauts.

It is conceivable that China would reap a similar economic benefit to the detriment of the United States in cooperative outer space activities. The likelihood is great that China would insist that any arrangement entered into be funded disproportionately by the United States. This in turn would take away from other programs, inflate the national deficit and even require more borrowing from China, which would have a cumulative effect on the national and economic security of the United States with little or no benefit.

The only benefit to the United States in entering into cooperative outer space activities with China is the political veneer of U.S.-Chinese cooperation. Aside from the political aspect, cooperative ventures with China would be inessential from a national security and geopolitical perspective. China brings no tangible benefits to the table, and with the paradigm shift toward commercial space activities by the United States, any cooperative arrangements with China would be met with resistance by private operators who would have concerns of their own regarding technology and the ability to operate in the outer space environment.


Outer space cooperation with China is and will continue to be a hot topic for U.S. space policy. Whether outer space cooperation with China will ultimately become a reality will be a political decision, and that decision must be made by considering both the globalist and geopolitical viewpoint when weighing the pros and cons.

Michael J. Listner is an attorney and the founder and principal of Space Law and Policy Solutions, a think tank and consultation firm that concentrates on legal and policy matters relating to space security and development. Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Michael Listner is an attorney and the founder and principal of Space Law & Policy Solutions, a legal and policy think tank that identifies issues and offers practical solutions on matters related to outer space security, national security and outer...

Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Her views do not represent those of the Naval War College, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.