What are the prospects of a serious strategic engagement between Washington and Beijing, now that the U.S. elections are over and the leadership transition in China has been announced? Will talks over space and nuclear issues remain inconsequential, or is it finally possible to have meaningful discussions? Might it even be possible to break the ice with an agreement to cooperate in useful and dramatic ways?

Starting a serious, sustained strategic dialogue would itself be a significant achievement. The United States and the Soviet Union avoided meaningful discussions for 15 years by trading unrealistic proposals for general and complete disarmament. After U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, Beijing and Moscow proposed a space treaty along these lines. Is Beijing now ready for more practical steps to help sustain the use of space as a global commons?

The United States and the Soviet Union first engaged in serious strategic negotiations in the early 1960s. Back then, the focus was on nuclear testing in the atmosphere, which posed a public health threat to all nations. In 1963, Washington, Moscow and London negotiated a treaty to stop this practice. Today, debris in low Earth orbit poses a public safety hazard of a different kind, threatening hundreds of spacecraft and human spaceflight, regardless of nationality. A treaty won’t solve this problem, but cooperation in debris mitigation techniques can help reverse it.

Starting in the late 1960s, Washington and Moscow began to tackle negotiations on nuclear forces and national missile defenses, a dialogue that periodically produced treaties and that continues to this day. Washington and Beijing are unlikely to go down a similar path — at least anytime soon. U.S. and Chinese nuclear force levels are too disparate in size and capability for treaties. Beijing, like Moscow during much of the Cold War, is also averse to the transparency measures needed to undergird nuclear force reduction treaties. In the meantime, the strategic engagement that matters most between Washington and Beijing has to do with space. 

Both countries are already dependent on space for military and nonmilitary uses, and will become more so. As David Gompert and Phillip Saunders noted in their 2011 book “The Paradox of Power,” in proportion to economic scale, China’s investments in space are already comparable to those of the United States. Investments in space, including the human spaceflight program in which the Chinese people take so much pride, are endangered by the proliferation of space debris and the absence of agreed traffic management guidelines for collision avoidance. Three debris events during the Bush administration — an anti-satellite test by the People’s Liberation Army, the breakup of a Russian rocket body, and the collision between a dead Russian and a functioning U.S. satellite — have clarified the need to establish norms of responsible behavior in space. The international space station has already had to be moved a dozen times to avoid debris hits.

One U.S. response after the Chinese test was to demonstrate an agile, sea-based anti-satellite capability, doing so against a satellite about to enter Earth’s atmosphere so as to mitigate debris consequences. Another U.S. response, after the unprecedented proliferation of debris during the Bush administration, was to voluntarily provide warnings of possible debris hits to Chinese and Russian spacecraft. These conjunction warnings, generated by the U.S. Strategic Command and conveyed to Beijing and Moscow by the State Department, could evolve into a space traffic management system. Alternatively, military competition can heat up in space, including repeated instances of harmful, purposeful interference with satellites. The Pentagon will be ready for either eventuality. The key question is which path Beijing will choose.

The Cold War competition between Washington and Moscow didn’t end with their strategic engagement. Instead, competition continued in some areas, but it was dampened by cooperation in space. Both superpowers retained vigorous military space programs, but they realized that it would be wise to refrain from highly provocative actions in space.

To symbolize efforts to improve relations, President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev agreed to an Apollo-Soyuz docking mission at the 1972 Moscow summit in which the first strategic arms limitation agreements were signed. Some feared that this mission would compromise the U.S. space program while providing further rewards to the Soviet program. These anxieties proved to be overdrawn. In 1975, Apollo docked with Soyuz, and U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts dined together in space.

The Apollo-Soyuz mission established practices of cooperation in space between Washington and Moscow that continue to this day on the international space station. One way to swing the calculus of the new Chinese leadership toward increased cooperation with the United States would be to propose a joint U.S.-Chinese space mission of some kind. Similar offers could be made to India, Russia and other spacefaring nations. Options might be particularized by space scientists for consideration by national authorities. The menu of choices for U.S.-Chinese initiatives would face similar concerns as with the Apollo-Soyuz mission. It could also serve the same purposes.

A substantive strategic engagement with China on space would be very hard for President Barack Obama’s administration to pull off. The level of mistrust between Washington and Beijing is high. Territorial and resource disputes around rock outcroppings in the South and East China seas could freeze any warming trend. Some in Congress will continue to oppose fiercely any cooperation with China in the space domain. By necessity or choice, U.S. presidents in their second terms often become practitioners of small steps rather than strategic initiatives. Beijing’s newly elevated leaders may also be overly solicitous to the People’s Liberation Army leadership during this transition period.

Despite all of these significant constraints, cooperation in space is a powerful idea — especially for a U.S. president who doesn’t appear to want to play small ball for the next four years.


Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of “Life Lessons: Recovering from Chemo and Serious Illness.”