The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama released a new National Space Policy on June 28, and one of its explicit goals is to expand international cooperation. The policy proposes greater efforts to work with other nations, not only in such areas as space nuclear power, space situational awareness and preservation of the space environment, but also in the pursuit of “bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures.” While it is not explicitly stated, one of the clear targets of this policy is China.

This is hardly surprising. In an era of increasingly constrained resources among most space-faring powers, China is one of the few nations expanding their efforts in space. Recent Chinese statements have indicated that China will place a space lab, the Tiangong 1, in orbit in 2011, with unmanned docking maneuvers on the Shenzhou 8 mission (also launched in 2011) and manned maneuvers on the subsequent Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 missions. This will provide Chinese astronauts with the basic skills required to undertake longer-term missions either in Earth orbit or to the Moon.

Meanwhile, China has continued to expand its portfolio of space capabilities. Most recently, it deployed the fourth Beidou satellite as part of an effort to raise its regional satellite navigation and positioning system to global status. It continues to develop new Earth-imaging systems and engage in space science.

China also has been a major promoter of “turnkey” space operations, where it helps design and launch the satellites, trains local personnel to operate the system, builds mission-support facilities and equips them and even insures the launch before turning the satellite over to the new owners. It has initialed agreements along these lines with Nigeria (Nigcomsat), Venezuela (Simon Bolivar) and Bolivia (Tupac Katari), and has indicated a willingness to assist Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in their satellite development efforts as well. Through this approach, nations can much more rapidly access space without necessarily having invested in the human and physical infrastructure beforehand.

In addition, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has demonstrated a clear interest in military space capabilities. This includes not only the January 2007 anti-satellite test but also the anti-missile test of January 2010. That test, which involved an “exo-atmospheric collision,” suggests the system could have anti-satellite functions as well.

It would therefore appear that China would be a logical partner for U.S. efforts at expanding international space cooperation. But appearances can be misleading. Indeed, in the case of China, it is important to emphasize that most assessments rely on appearances, because of the lack of transparency in the Chinese space program. Lines of responsibility and identities of key decision-making bodies, as well as individuals, are generally obscured.

This is exacerbated by what we do know of key players within the Chinese space program — that much of the power and authority are vested within the PLA. For example, the Chinese space infrastructure, including its three launch sites and various telemetry, tracking and command and mission-control facilities, is manned and staffed by the General Armaments Department (also known as the General Equipment Department) — one of the four general departments that manage the PLA on a day-to-day basis. By contrast, the China National Space Agency (CNSA), the ostensible civilian space agency, is far less important within the Chinese space bureaucracy.

Similarly, China’s space-industrial complex is a paragon of civil-military integration. China’s two large state-run aerospace companies, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC), are both heavily involved in the production of military and civilian aerospace systems and subsystems. There is little evidence, and less reason to believe, that there is any kind of “firewall” separating the military and civilian research or production efforts. Engagement with Chinese aerospace industrial entities such as CASC and CASIC, therefore, will inevitably have spillover effects into China’s military systems.

Any effort to expand cooperation with China in the space arena consequently generates military implications. Given the Chinese interest in developing anti-access capabilities, including anti-ship ballistic missiles and the attendant C4ISR — command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — capabilities necessary for their effective employment, one has to question just what impact greater space cooperation with China might have.

Further complicating matters is the reality that space cooperation does not occur in a vacuum, but is subject to the vagaries of larger trends within Sino-American relations. In this regard, recent developments give little reason for optimism. Any kind of space cooperation must include a military component; the Chinese space bureaucracy and the issues at stake make the PLA an essential part of any cooperative effort. But the Chinese brushoff to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the decision to allow PLA officers to lecture the American delegation to the recent bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue, suggest minimal interest in expanding military-to-military relations. Should the United States decide to sell F-16 C/Ds fighter jets to Taiwan, prospects for military contacts between the two sides will be even more remote. Are the Chinese interested in meaningful space cooperation, especially if the military must play a role?

This situation suggests that any effort at expanding space cooperation with China occur only after several initial questions are answered.

  • How important is space cooperation with China? Just as space policy is only one element of the larger panorama of national policy, space cooperation must be examined within the broader range of Sino-American issues. If military-to-military relations are often held hostage when other developments rile Washington or Beijing, the same will almost certainly be true with space efforts. Therefore, American decision-makers need to rank space cooperation with other interactions. How does it compare with the American commitment to Taiwan, or the Iranian or North Korean nuclear issues, all of which have been irritants in the Sino-American relationship?
  • What are the American goals in cooperating with China in space? Without having a good sense of what U.S. goals are, it is not possible to negotiate successfully with Beijing. It is therefore essential that, before the Obama administration pushes any kind of expanded space diplomacy with China, there be established within the American space community, both military and civilian, both commercial and governmental, a clear-cut set of goals for that outreach.

Without answers to these two questions, any effort at facilitating space cooperation is as likely to disappoint as it is to satisfy. It is important to know where the journey is ultimately heading before taking the proverbial first step.


Dean Cheng is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.