So far, there have been only three nations that sent humans to space on their own, which makes them unique among all the nations with space programs. And yet, these nations have not formed an exclusive club of the most advanced space explorers. The levels of space cooperation among the three vary from “getting acquainted” to established relationships.

In late September, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin paid a landmark visit to China to meet his counterpart Sun Laiyan, director of the China National Space Administration, and other Chinese space officials. Mr. Griffin is the highest-ranking U.S. space official to pay a visit to Beijing, a visit that he called “a first date” with the Chinese space agency.

Both sides agreed to promote a “new chapter in China-U.S. space cooperation” and hold annual meetings and jointly explore potential areas of cooperation. Trying to make its space program appear more open, the Chinese government let U.S. officials and foreign reporters visit its Beijing mission control center and the Gobi Desert launch base for its manned flights.

Although Mr. Griffin appreciated the effort, he flatly ruled out open-ended collaboration with the Chinese , limiting possible joint activities to setting up working groups in areas such as earth science, climate research and data sharing on various scientific missions.

Chinese and American space experts speculate on potential bilateral projects, such as managing the radio frequency spectrum, controlling orbital debris and robotic exploration. However, no matter what projects will be chosen to begin with, they most certainly will not involve transfers of U.S. technology related to launchers, satellites or a space station. Even if the current taboo on China’s international space station (ISS) participation is lifted, the most plausible activity envisioned is launching Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft with a Chinese crew — a Chinese-only endeavor at their own risk.

One can hardly expect any higher level of collaboration considering the fact that the U.S. government has even been using the visa mechanism to prevent Chinese space engineers from attending conferences and professional forums in the United States fearing that contacting foreign experts may improve China’s missile capabilities.

The Pentagon has publicly stated that it considered China’s space program a potential threat to the satellite systems that are crucial to U.S. military supremacy, a concern shared by many U.S. lawmakers. Obviously, in addition to civilian purposes, China’s space efforts also have military aims, including making their ICBMs more sophisticated and building spy satellites.

Some experts maintain that China’s manned flights would serve mainly reconnaissance purposes. For these reasons, Washington has objected to a Chinese role in the ISS and is reluctant to share any know-how that might be used to improve Beijing’s military capabilities.

Nonproliferation analysts tie up prospective bilateral space projects with China’s membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and respective obligation to restrict sales of missile and missile technology. One of the MTCR’s advantages is more relaxed missile technology flow among members, including elevated cooperation on space projects.

The conventional wisdom suggests that in exchange for restricted missile exports Beijing would get more access to international space activities. However, in the case of China, missile proliferation concerns are two-fold – proliferation from and to China. China’s MTCR membership might reduce concerns over missile proliferation from China, but will not remove the risk of transfers of sensitive dual-use technologies to Beijing through space cooperation.

Here we are facing a vicious circle — Beijing demonstrates readiness to curb its missile sales to other countries and join the MTCR hoping that its space cooperation with regime fellow-members, particularly with the United States, will be brought to a much higher level. On the other hand, despite ongoing negotiations over China’s MTCR membership , Washington has clearly demonstrated its reluctance to have any significant cooperative space endeavors with Beijing that involve transfers of technologies and equipment that may potentially be used for military purposes, which brings down China’s incentives to pursue regime membership.

The sentiments of proliferation and competition seem to be of much less concern to Russia, which has been recently elevating its space collaboration with the China National Space Administration. Among numerous bilateral projects being discussed, the priority seems to be given to Moon and Mars exploration. Russia and China formalized their plans for the Moon research in a specific action plan approved in June 2005 and followed up on that with several expert meetings, the latest of which took place in September. Both sides have approved the joint research program for 2007-2009, and more detailed space cooperation agreements to that effect are expected to be signed at the end of the year during Russian Prime Minister Mik hail Fradkov’s visit to Beijing.

China plans to launch the Chang’e lunar probe in 2007 as a part of its ongoing Lunar Exploration Mission. Chinese and Russian space agencies are planning a joint mission to Mars in 2009 using Russian spacecraft and China-made survey equipment. The probe will not only bring back to Earth soil samples from Mars but also from Mars’s moon, Phobos.

Expected decrease in U.S.-Russian space cooperation is one of the factors that pushes the Russian space agency to a closer partnership with China. NASA officials have made it clear that any joint projects under the U.S. lunar program would only include helping to build the infrastructure of the U.S. lunar base, but all the main components of lunar spacecraft will be developed within the United States. Major U.S.-Russian research and development projects related to lunar exploration do not seem feasible at the moment.

Currently, the core of U.S.-Russia space cooperation is the missions to the ISS based on the need for Soyuz transportation vehicles. When Crew Exploration Vehicles are built as scheduled by 2010 to replace shuttles, NASA might not need Russian spacecraft anymore, and the bilateral cooperation might, as many Russian space officials fear, decrease. Roscosmos typically welcomes financial and technological advantages of collaborative activities with space programs of other countries, and cooperation with advanced and relatively well-financed Chinese space programs is certainly in the priority list.

Most experts agree that Mr. Griffin’s visit to China was a politically motivated decision with no intention to bring any practical outcomes. Practical considerations, however, should be brought into the picture — the sooner, the better.

The United States is no longer capable of containing Chinese ambitions in space, or its domestic and collaborative research and development. China has major space agreements with Russia, Europe and most other nations with space programs. It has already signed 16 pacts with 13 governments and organizations and established space industry cooperation with more than 40 countries and international organizations. Beijing is even striving for the role of the regional leader — in 2005, China and eight other countries signed an agreement establishing the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, which would be led by China and headquartered in Beijing.

Rather than plainly rejecting the mere idea of any significant space cooperation with China, NASA may want to follow Russia’s example and consider a case-by-case approach to carrying out joint space activities with the country, which would allow a certain level of partnership without transferring sensitive technologies with possible military applications.

By engaging China in joint space projects, the U.S. government would have a better appreciation of how the military and civilian arms of the integrated Chinese rocket science program interact and how the decision-making mechanism works. Also, participation in U.S.-led space projects would put Beijing in a position where it has much to lose if slapped with sanctions for inappropriate missile sales. This will provide much-needed leverage to persuade China to stay in compliance with MTCR export control norms.

Victor Zaborskiy is the founder of Special Trade Operations Consulting in Atlanta.