It is sometimes said that if we could cooperate with Russia in space at the height of the Cold War, we can certainly cooperate with China now. This is wildly optimistic, and it is not even clear if cooperation is in our national interest.
First, the United States remains fixated with slowing China’s military modernization. A proposed new regulation from the Commerce Department extends military-related restrictions to “prevent exports that would make a material contribution to the military capability of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while facilitating U.S. exports to legitimate civil end-users in the PRC.” This balancing act — simultaneously promoting some exports while restricting others — is not impossible, but its inherent and perhaps unavoidable ambivalence complicates any cooperation with China in space.
The root of this ambivalence is that the United States considers some exports as safe for China while others are not. Some Chinese companies and government entities are safe to work with, and others are not. A cumbersome bureaucratic process sorts proposed transactions with China into safe and unsafe.
Officially, space falls on the unsafe side of the line. Congress decided in 1999 that all things related to space were military, and the United States embargoes all military exports to China. It is not in the best interests of the United States to sell arms and munitions to China; Any weapon sold to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ultimately might be used against us. But are commercial satellites or manned space flight inherently military? Not since the 1960s.
There is an internationally agreed to list of prohibited military goods, but we have chosen not to follow it, contributing to the wide divergence between our practices and those of other industrial nations. One key difference is in the treatment of space and satellites (military for us, civil for everyone else). The result is that the United States is isolating itself from the rest of the space community. We have made it hard to cooperate with our allies in space, much less with the Chinese.
The proposed Commerce regulation identifies a grab bag of technologies that the United States would not be allowed to export to China if the recipient is involved with the military. Most of these technologies have nothing to do with space, but one part of the proposed rule is a requirement that the Chinese government must certify that a purchaser of any controlled good valued at more than $5,000 is not involved with the Chinese military. Chinese officials point out that their aerospace companies (like many companies in the United States and Europe) have both military and civil components. China experts say it will be difficult for these companies to create a firewall between commercial and military activities. The military’s role in China’s space program is already a problem for cooperation; the new rule, if implemented, could push this problem into the launch vehicle supply chain.
Weapons of mass destruction sanctions are another impediment. This year, the Treasury Department sanctioned four Chinese companies for missile technology sales to Iran. One of those companies, Great Wall Industries Corp. , is the commercial arm of the Chinese space program. This is not the first time that the United States has sanctioned Great Wall for missile-related sales to Iran and North Korea. The current sanctions preclude any no agency, company or person from engaging in transactions with Great Wall in China, the United States or anywhere else.
China, of course, is unhappy with the sanctions and proposed regulation. In response, the Chinese reportedly also have begun to look at the precedents for space set by earlier U.S. sanctions and restrictions on Russia. But the situation is very different. When the United States imposed sanctions on Russia last year under the terms of the Iran Nonproliferation Act, there was an immediate risk to space programs. The United States needs Soyuz to provide access and a lifeboat for the international space station. This is not the case with China.
Telling the Chinese that if they want to play with us in space, they cannot supply Iran with missile technology is the right thing to do (although it is too late to affect Iran’s missile programs). The Commerce regulations, based on a Cold War security rationale, make less sense. China is not the Soviet Union when it comes to technology transfer, and unilateral restrictions on commercial technologies that are imposed only by the United States will not work. However, the same logic applies to cooperation in space. China is not the Soviet Union. We are not strategic competitors, China does not have a peer or near-peer space program, and there is no need for detente. The Chinese would be the chief beneficiaries of cooperation. They would get prestige and know-how. The United States would get some small political benefit.
Therefore, a cooperative effort already entangled by military and proliferation concerns may not make much sense.
There is a tendency to see international cooperation in space as valuable in itself, but this cooperation is shaped by the larger political context. With the Soviets in the 1970s, that context was a desire on both sides to reduce tensions and to end the space race. Even then, it took several years of negotiations, culminating in an agreement signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin.
If Soviet-U.S. cooperation in space sets any precedent for China, it is that years of discussion and high-level agreement are necessary. Cooperation will need to be more than symbolic. The United States will need to be more rational about space technologies, and China will need to do more to separate civil and military space programs. It should be possible to design programs that benefit both sides, but progress will depend on the political relationship.
However, new sanctions, proposed new restrictions, and suspicion on both sides move us further away from cooperation, not closer.
James Lewis is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.