O n March 30, the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA held a hearing so that members presumably could begin delving into the details of the agency’s $16.8 billion budget request for 2007. The appropriators have a difficult job ahead of them, given the tremendous budgetary strain NASA is under as it attempts to resume flying its problem-plagued space shuttle fleet while moving ahead with development of a replacement system.
Such is the magnitude of the funding problem that it is difficult to envision a palatable solution — short of an unlikely increase to NASA’s top line — and the lawmakers didn’t even bother to try. Instead they devoted the hearing to sounding alarms about what they characterized as China’s juggernaut space program.
“The American people have no idea how massive the Chinese space program is,” exclaimed Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). His colleague, former House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), declared that the United States, was, unbeknownst to its citizens, locked in a space race with China.
It made for good theater, never mind the fact that China is decades behind the United States in space capabilities and achievement. But if the idea was to stir the American public into demanding increased spending on space, the intended audience — to the extent that it was listening — appears to be awaiting a more compelling argument.
Less than a week after the hearing, Luo Ge, China’s No. 2 space official, weighed in with a message of his own: Yes indeed, China has a space program, and a fairly ambitious one at that. In public appearances and interviews during a visit to the United States, Mr. Luo dismissed claims by some U.S. lawmakers that China intends to land taikonauts on the Moon by 2017, a year earlier than NASA has targeted for its return there. But he did outline plans for robotic lunar exploration, possibly including sample-return missions, as well as for deploying an orbiting space station and launching 100 satellites for myriad applications.
Mr. Luo also went to some lengths to emphasize China’s interest in space cooperation with other nations, particularly the United States, and noted in an interview that he had extended an invitation to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to visit China, possibly as early as this coming autumn.
Such overtures are all well and good, even if Mr. Luo is overlooking the fact that China and the United States have serious issues to resolve before they will be ready for any significant cooperation in space activity.
Those reasons include the fact that China is viewed by America’s government as a potential military adversary, and space technology is dual-use by nature. Moreover, Beijing has been less than helpful to date on Washington’s top priorities in their bilateral discourse: curbing the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, and correcting the huge trade imbalance between China and the United States.
But one can nonetheless envision space one day playing some sort of confidence-building role in bilateral diplomacy between the two rivals, much as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project did for the United States and Soviet Union in the early to mid-1970s. The fact that NASA invited China to participate in an international space exploration workshop in Washington during the week of April 24 — on the heels of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s official visit to the U.S. capital April 20 — indicates that the White House at least recognizes this as a possibility.
Because space cooperation has military, scientific, economic and symbolic implications, America often wields it as a diplomatic tool — for better and for worse. Space is a carrot in the budding strategic partnership between the United States and India, for example. Space also has been used as a stick against China, particularly with regard to the export of U.S.-built satellites for launch in China, and both a stick and a carrot with Russia on such issues as commercial launch and the international space station program.
Up until the late 1990s, China regularly launched communications satellites built in the United States, in many cases for Chinese customers. That commercial relationship — which gave U.S. firms access to China’s potentially vast telecommunications market while providing strategically valuable insights into Chinese space capabilities — disintegrated almost overnight due to politically fueled allegations that Beijing was using U.S. technology to improve its ICBMs. Rather than taking time to help craft changes or clarifications to U.S. export rules to reduce the chance of unauthorized technology transfers, Congress dashed headlong into a technology clampdown that — in addition to having no visible effect on China other than to deny it launch revenues — has weakened U.S. companies, strengthened their overseas competitors and complicated NASA’s international partnerships.
Mr. Luo’s U.S. visit served to reinforce what should already be clear to anyone who has been paying attention: China has the will and the resources to become a top player on the international space scene in the next decade.
The question is whether U.S. space policy toward China will evolve during that time based on realistic and mutually beneficial long-term strategic and economic goals, or whether it will continue to be subject to misperceptions, short-sighted objectives and political opportunism. For its part, China must prove that it will help stop the proliferation of dangerous technology.