OpEd: U.S.-China Space Relations: Maintaining an Arm’s Length


Since 2003, the space community has been churning over a proper response to ‘s emergence as a power capable of independent human spaceflight (ironically, a capability the is about to lose). Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe hosted his not-quite-counterpart during a visit to the in 2004, while his successor, Michael Griffin, conducted his own high-level tour in September 2006 of some Chinese space entities – limited largely by ‘s resistance to openness and the People’s Liberation Army, which controls ‘s space program. The People’s Republic of ‘s (PRC) success in sending a scientific mission to the Moon, its announced plans to orbit a space station, its significant launch capabilities and the growing number of cooperative space projects with other countries suggest to some that a response is needed.

It is tempting to hold out space partnership as a tool to influence the broader U.S.- PRC relationship. In particular, those who view space as a means of influencing terrestrial politics will push for a partnership. By learning to live and work together in space, we can better live and work together on Earth, or so the theory goes. But, such an approach fails to grasp the nature of international politics, in which space policy is a tool of broader goals, and not the other way around. As a result, the broad U.S.-PRC relationship will affect how the two countries interact with one another in space, and not vice versa.

In that context, it makes little sense to seek a space partnership with . The bilateral relationship is simply too unsettled with too many potential flashpoints, ranging from and human rights to labor practices and currency manipulation. Thus, a space partnership would only import all of the burdens of the broader geopolitical relationship into the space program, without necessarily benefiting the program in a meaningful way. Instead, sophisticated, multiyear cooperative projects would be at risk when Chinese behavior on human rights, toward its neighbors, in currency manipulation, or in proliferating dangerous technologies clash with American values, ideals or interests. Similarly, may counter moves to preserve a strategic balance in by imposing consequences on any bilateral space project, essentially holding American space interests hostage to broader issues.

Any potential partnership with also raises more specific concerns. Chinese espionage activities against high- tech American targets are well documented.

Michelle Van Cleave, the nation’s first national coordinator for counterintelligence, recently noted: “The Chinese stole the design secrets to all – repeat, all – U.S. nuclear weapons, enabling them to leapfrog generations of technology development and put our nuclear arsenal, the country’s last line of defense, at risk. To this day, we don’t know quite when or how they did it, but we do know that Chinese intelligence operatives are still at work, systematically targeting not only ‘s defense secrets but our industries’ valuable proprietary information.”

Unfortunately, NASA is a soft target compared with the nation’s nuclear labs. The U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission’s most recent report noted that in 2005 Chinese hackers targeted NASA and stole files on spacecraft propulsion, solar panels and fuel tanks – all useful for military systems. More recently, a contract engineer was indicted last year for stealing technologies associated with the space shuttle and Delta 4 launch vehicle on behalf of the People’s Republic of . A close partnership would only increase the potential for greater technology transfer, to the net harm of the national security interests of the United States

Finally, consider the symbolism of a partnership with in space. Since its inception, the civil space program has served as a geopolitical metaphor. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy intended to send geopolitical messages in creating NASA and launching us to the Moon. Similarly, President Ronald Reagan’s administration conceived of the international space station as a demonstration of the unity and technical prowess of the western democracies in contrast to Soviet authoritarianism. When Russians overthrew communism and joined the family of democratic nations, they were welcomed into the program, further symbolizing their changed status. Partnership with would send the signal that values held by the West, such as representative government, individual liberty, the rule of law and respect for human rights – which the leaders of the People’s Republic of do not share – are no longer as important to the relationship.

Others will be tempted to promote a partnership in the vain hope of influencing the direction of ‘s space program. The simple truth is that ‘s space program exists to serve the interests – both domestic and foreign – of the ruling party in . It is not merely an appendage of the U.S.-PRC relationship to be directed by western carrots and sticks. The Chinese people are immensely proud of their accomplishments in orbit, as well they should be. They represent technical prowess that once belonged solely to the superpowers and appear to resonate emotionally with the Chinese people in much the same way that Apollo once did with Americans. Space programs represent progress and the promise of a brighter future.

More specifically, and of greater concern to the United States, China’s space program is an adjunct of its growing military power, built to affect the relative balance of power in Asia in ways unfavorable to the United States and its allies. Given conflicting interests, Americans will not be able to “steer” ‘s space behavior through the promise of a close partnership any more than King Canute could order the tides to stop. Indeed, a true partnership may exacerbate the conflict of interests by strengthening ‘s technical capabilities and political weight in space matters. Instead of seeing new potential partners in , space policymakers must watch the full range of developments in closely with an eye toward improving our understanding of ‘s capabilities and intentions.

This does not mean that the potential for cooperation should be ignored. In some areas, and PRC interests in space do coincide. With careful attention to the potential for illicit technology transfer, establishing common data formats, exchanging scientific research results and drawing ‘s attention to its responsibilities as a spacefaring nation all remain worthwhile activities that states can pursue in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Indeed, the and several spacefaring states are already pursuing such discussions in recognition of ‘s arrival as a full-fledged space power. Such talks may evolve if and when ‘s perception of its interests and behavior more closely coincide with those of its neighbors. Until then, civil space policymakers may best serve national interests in space vis– vis by leaving well enough alone.

Eric Sterner is a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute and held senior staff positions with the House Armed Services and Science committees, in addition to serving in the Department of Defense and NASA. The views expressed here are his own.