China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) is expected to take part in an invitation-only Exploration Strategy Workshop to be held in Washington the week of April 24.

The meeting is seen by NASA as the first step in a series of activities planned for 2006 that will focus on defining a global space exploration strategy for robotic and human lunar exploration, including the role of the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars and other destinations. The event will bring together representatives from a broad range of communities to work in multidisciplinary teams, exchanging ideas on the strategy for exploration.

The workshop is an outgrowth of U.S. President George W. Bush’s visionary agenda unveiled in January 2004 of Moon, Mars, and beyond exploration goals that he tasked NASA to undertake.

“Consistent with the vision’s mandate to pursue international cooperation, we are hosting 13 international space agencies, including China’s, next week at an exploration workshop,” said Melissa Mathews, NASA public affairs spokeswoman for the space agency’s Office of External Relations.

NASA chief Mike Griffin was invited to visit China earlier this month by the China National Space Administration, Mathews said, and NASA is considering the invitation. “As for dates, there’s nothing more specific than ‘fall’ to report to you at this point,” she said .

Regarding where things stand today in terms of NASA’s cooperation with China, Mathews said: “Generally speaking, NASA is constrained in its ability to discuss new civil space cooperation with China until China addresses issues of concern to the U.S. government. Our current involvement with China is limited and consists of such things as low-level Earth science exchanges of data. There is no human spaceflight-related cooperation under consideration at this time.”

In an interview broadcast on the C-SPAN program “Newsmakers” April 21, Griffin said: “NASA has not been able to engage in cooperative endeavors with the Chinese national space agency in part because, as you know, aerospace technology is closely linked to missile and weapons proliferation in the world, and we control that technology very carefully. Until and unless we in the administration can see some movement on the part of the Chinese in helping us as leaders in the world to control the spread of dangerous weapons technology, then we would be very careful about how we engaged and where and on what topics.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao met with Bush in the White House April 20.

As a prelude to President Hu’s visit, the United States and the People’s Republic of China signed a protocol April 18 that extends for five years a number of bilateral science and technology cooperative agreements.

The protocol agreement was signed by John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Bush’s science advisor, and Xu Guanhua, China’s minister of science and technology.

“The extension enables the continuation of the ongoing exchange of scientific and technical knowledge, the pursuit of advanced and applied scientific and technical projects, and the augmentation of scientific and technical,” according to a U.S. State Department fact sheet.

Areas identified for continued and potential future cooperation include: fisheries; e merging and infectious diseases (such as avian influenza and HIV/AIDS); Earth and atmospheric sciences; basic research in physics, chemistry and agriculture; a variety of energy-related areas; geology; health; civil industrial technology; and disaster research.

Roster of space projects

While that list goes far beyond space cooperation, space is an area where China has made a significant commitment to the development of new technology and also expressed strong interest in international cooperation. Luo Ge, vice administrator of CNSA , noted at the recent 22nd National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., that his country will be launching about 100 satellites over the next five to eight years, including meteorological, communications and Earth remote sensing spacecraft, as well as constellations of Earth-observing and disaster- monitoring spacecraft.

Luo, who extended the invitation to Griffin’s staff for a fall visit by the NASA administrator, also outlined China’s multi- step program for robotic exploration of the Moon that is scheduled to begin in 2007 with the country’s first lunar orbiter mission. By 2012, he said, China space planners will be landing a rover on the Moon’s surface. And in 2017, the lunar exploration plans call for robotic lunar sample return.

While U.S.-Chinese cooperation in space is complicated by the dual-use nature of space technology and the security implications that entails, said Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the national security studies department at the Naval War College in Newport, R. I. , there are slight indications that a change in relations between the two countries might be possible.

“I am cautiously optimistic, which is more optimistic than I’ve been in the past,” Johnson-Freese said in an early April interview.

“There is no distinction between space technology for civil or military use, since 95 percent of space technology is dual use, and further — and really problematic — there is often little or no distinction between military technology that is offensive or defensive in nature,” Johnson-Freese said . “So, fear of being exploited drives countries to view actions of others in zero-sum terms.”

All this is further exacerbated when there is a predisposition by one state to view the other as an adversary…or even a “potential” adversary. While strategically the U.S. talks about working with China, there are still other voices that talk about China as a potential near-peer competitor, due to Taiwan, the growth of their military, resource competition and other issues of alarm, Johnson-Freese said . “It is very likely that the lens through which the U.S. — as the currently dominant space power — will view any expansion of Chinese space power will be a military one.”

Security dilemmas, Johnson-Freese remarked, are by their nature difficult to deal with, but not impossible. A recent visit of the bi partisan congressional delegation to China and talks about potential space cooperation in areas like astronaut rescue and environmental monitoring was a good sign, she said.

However, a change of policy to include cooperative space activities is still a White House call, Johnson-Freese said. A first step on this path, she said , is simply understanding the Chinese better and allowing them to know the United States better through dialogue.