China and the United States are methodically working toward an agreement on civil space cooperation. A cooperative relationship is good for both countries. It can serve as a basis for deeper scientific and technical agreements and serve as a confidence-building measure on security matters related to space. However, protecting American security interests requires careful management by the federal government and industry.

Some fear that any U.S.-China cooperation in civil space programs would lead to technology leaks or inadvertent assistance that would make China a more formidable power in space.

Such concerns should be no surprise. Civil and military space programs have some overlap. The rockets that launch astronauts or space missions also can launch military satellites or weapon payloads. Satellite constellations and systems that speed commerce, help locate resources, monitor weather and map the Earth, with some changes, can gather intelligence, support global warfare and target weapon strikes. In the past, exchanges between scientists on space launch programs have contributed to China’s military capacity when technicians overstepped the bounds set in export licenses designed to protect national security.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, reminds us that the same rockets that could support lunar missions for China also can “incapacitate America’s space communications and space predominance.” A launch-on-demand capability can support warfare in space and improve the control of war from space. There already is evidence, documented in the “Titan Rain” penetrations of American military and nuclear installations by hackers, that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Chinese defense industries are engaged in a “cyber-war” with the United States. People are naturally cautious about improving China’s military capacity in space.

The Feb. 3 Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Review noted that China is one of the few countries in the world developing the capacity to challenge the United States militarily. A month later, the March 16 National Security Strategy expressed legitimate concerns about China’s military expansion and the lack of transparency about China’s long-term intentions.

However, there are good models for international civil cooperation in space, even between strategic rivals. When President Richard Nixon raised the possibility of joint space flight with Russia in 1970, few would have imagined that after the February 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster the Russians would put an American into space. Yet had the United States and the Soviet Union not entered into measured programs of cooperation in civil space exploration, such an outcome would have been impossible. We should be in a position to do the same thing with China.

In such areas as telecommunications, meteorological cooperation, Earth resource monitoring, remote sensing and navigation, the Chinese might be eager to move forward with deeper cooperation. Here, however, national security concerns will moderate the pace. In other areas like developing a joint docking device, we should move forward as quickly as both governments can create an agreement.

There also are issues that require deeper cooperation between the United States and Chinese governments. China intends to launch some 100 satellites in space by the year 2010, and to double that number to 200 by the year 2020. Space is going to get crowded. Our space agencies must be ready to de-conflict orbits, track space debris in a coordinated way and manage safe de orbiting.

Still, we must be realistic about the limits of scientific exchange and cooperation. Zhang Qingwei, president of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. , recently complained that Chinese scientists had trouble getting visas to visit the United States for technical and scientific exchanges. In a May 4 interview with China Daily, he expressed the hope that a cooperative space effort would open more visa opportunities. It is not realistic to expect the “deemed export” issue to go away and to see a flood of new visas issued to Chinese scientists and technicians for space-related exchanges.

American security requires that the government continue to monitor exchanges. The U.S. government will continue to control the movements of scientists and technical experts who could make significant improvements to China’s military capacity merely by exposure to specific industrial processes or information.

Simple prudence — not anti-China feelings — generate this caution. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) reminded Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a letter May 4 that China has a “coordinated espionage program against our government.” The deputy undersecretary of defense for technology security and counterproliferation has testified that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 Chinese front companies operating in the United States to gather secret or proprietary information, much of which is national security technology or information. The deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for counterintelligence recently put the number of Chinese front companies in the United States at over 3,200.

Since it instituted the Torch Program (or “863 Program”) in March 1986, China has had a national-level coordinated effort to gain new technology with dual, civil and military application. Thus, for all the hopes and desires of scientists or agency heads on both sides of the Pacific, the lessons of the investigation by former Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) in 1999 on China’s use of U.S. space technology will continue to guide Washington’s policies. The “Cox Commission Report,” among other things, found that the technical assistance provided by U.S. companies to resolve problems with the nose cones of China’s Long March rockets, had direct application to military satellite launches and also could help the People’s Liberation Army avoid similar problems with fairings for its nuclear-tipped ICBMs.

Last year, China surprised the U.S. Navy by fielding two new classes of submarines, including a new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. Meteorological, environmental and navigation satellites for China also would improve the Chinese navy’s capacity to launch accurate ballistic missiles against the United States from under the sea.

A realistic, objective approach to cooperation will result in some agreement that will benefit both nations, make space a safer place to launch satellites and pave the way for cooperation in manned programs in space.

We should ignore the scientists and academics who seek to deny there is a fine line between the military and civilian uses of space. We also should ignore the complaints of idealists who would try to prevent nations from looking out for their defense and national security interests.

China and the United States have reasonable and manageable goals in international space that can form the basis for a cooperative agreement that limits the danger to each nation’s security. Such an agreement may someday be the basis for the type of cooperation America enjoys with Europe and Russia.

Larry M. Wortzel is chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a body established and appointed by Congress. He is a retired Army colonel who served two tours of duty as a military attache in China.