A standoff between the United States and China has been a long time coming, ever since the first “taikonauts” achieved human spaceflight early this century. Few, however, have asked whether a standoff is even necessary. Many politicians, primarily led by U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a man I respect for all other reasons, find it imperative to loudly forbid any cooperation with the Chinese in the realm of space. Frankly, this irks me; attitudes such as these serve as catalysts for cold wars. One has to ask why it seems so nigh impossible for two economic giants separated by a wide cultural berth to cooperate in at least the arena of space.
I agree with the thoughts of Dean Cheng in the op-ed “America’s Muddled China Space Policy” [Commentary, March 28, page 19] that, indeed, the current U.S. administration is politically undecided on where to stand on this issue.
Realistically, everyone understands that there are two main ways to prosper in the space industry: through severe competition with another economic superpower funded primarily for what can be described as “national security interests,” or via close cooperation and nearly complete transparency with said superpower in space efforts.
I think it is also fair to say that close cooperation under the best of circumstances would yield higher returns in capabilities and results than would a new “space race” similar to the benign sort experienced with the Soviet Union. President Barack Obama and his staff understand this but are wary to declare it as policy in order not to anger Republican counterparts who like to follow a tried and true “advancement through competition” methodology and worry an American public generally reluctant to work with a culture that is far away in distance, culture and manners of communication. While it is highly unlikely that Congressman Wolf’s conservative ranks are maliciously attempting to spur space growth with a Cold War II, this must mean that they genuinely believe China to be a credible threat not worth the risk of cooperating with.
But what risks are they speaking of? All sides of the political spectrum like to loudly promise that America should and will work hard to retain its dominance in both commercial and military space; do we really stand to lose much by becoming equals with another space power? The European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are not ready to carry such a heavy load. While it can be argued and in some cases agreed upon whether China serves as a threat militarily and economically, does it really serve as a threat in space? Granted, the United States and China had a power display exchange in anti-satellite warfare (slightly botched by China, creating a messy debris field), but wouldn’t a space race still allow and even encourage such capability and aggressiveness in China? By having intense cooperation, both countries would be on equal footing just as they would be in a heated space race, but at least in the latter scenario, such destructive demonstrations of space warfare would have very low likelihood of occurring.