Asia appears to be gearing up for a space marathon (as distinguished from the U.S.-Soviet “space race”) involving China, India, Japan and perhaps even South Korea. Asian states are placing ever more satellites into orbit, with an eye to gaining prestige as well as preserving national security. The United States has the ability to influence this burgeoning race; what is unclear is whether the administration of President Barack Obama is aware of its potential role. The recent presidential visit to Asia suggests that it is not.

During his visit, Obama met with both Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, as well as Chinese President HuJintao. It was only in his discussions with Hu, however, that the issue of space was publicly discussed.

Hu and Obama’s joint statement commits the two countries to expanding discussions in space science cooperation, including in the area of human spaceflight. Furthermore, the two presidents apparently discussed the issue of space arms control, agreeing “to take steps to enhance security in outer space.”

This set of declarations, little commented upon given the focus on economic cooperation and climate change, will potentially complicate U.S. relations with the other Asian space powers.

In the first place, that space publicly arose only in the conversations with the Chinese is likely to give the impression that the United States is more concerned about space cooperation with China than it is with Japan or South Korea. This is an inaccurate, if not dangerous, message to be sending, given the longstanding alliance relationships that the U.S. has forged over the past 60 years with both countries. In particular, to suggest that the United States is more interested in space cooperation with China than with Japan, especially in light of the strained relations between Washington and Tokyo, will do little to bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Moreover, these statements suggest a desperate search for common ground on the part of the United States, to the point that it apparently was undertaken without the benefit of the necessary staff work to ensure success. Nowhere is this more evident than in the joint statement itself, where both sides commit to an exchange of visits by government space officials. Whereas the U.S. will dispatch the NASA administrator, the “reciprocal visit” by the Chinese will be by “the appropriate Chinese counterpart.” Apparently, even for a joint statement that likely was hammered out months in advance, it was not possible to determine whom the equivalent official in the Chinese space program is. One might have expected the U.S. and China to have determined who would represent each side. If China was unwilling to name a suitable official, it would have been better to have left the entire matter of reciprocal visits out of the statement. That this visit was incorporated into the joint statement with such vague language raises serious questions about the Obama administration’s likely stance in any negotiations with China — and what it might be willing to give up in order to secure “cooperation.”

Indeed, it is striking that the administration should take such a deferential stance with China — a nation with which the United States has no record of space cooperation. By contrast, no such outreach was mentioned with such nations as Japan and South Korea, despite deeper, longer-standing and friendlier strategic relations.

Perhaps the starkest contrast, though, is in the U.S. space relationship with India. While little remarked upon, the links between Washington and New Delhi in space are far more concrete than those between Washington and Beijing. This was evidenced in the recent Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe, which discovered higher volumes of water in the lunar surface than had been expected. While the satellite was Indian, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper that detected the water was American. Clearly, the U.S. is far more comfortable with flying NASA instrument packages onboard an Indian satellite than on a Chinese one.

The July 2009 visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to India further codified this cooperation  with the signing of a Technology Safeguards Agreement, which specifies that U.S. components may be incorporated into civil or noncommercial satellites that use Indian space launch vehicles. By contrast, since the Loral-Hughes incident of the 1990s, no satellite containing U.S. components has been launched aboard Chinese boosters.

Despite such substantial cooperation, there was only the briefest hint that space had even been a topic of discussion between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the latter’s visit to the United States. In sharp contrast to the specific discussion of space cooperation with China, Obama mentioned space only once in the various press conferences with Singh, describing it, and nuclear power, as a potential venue for developing human capital.

In light of the growing focus on space among the various Asian states, the president should proceed carefully with his efforts to forge greater space cooperation with China. Three imperatives come to mind.

  • Recognize the importance of space diplomacy. That Obama is exploiting space for diplomatic ends is to be applauded — too few other presidents have had the foresight or circumspection to recognize the utility of space as a diplomatic tool. The NASA brand remains vibrant around the world, and other nations seek to have their space programs associated with it.
  • Demand transparency. Given the desire of other nations, including China, to associate their space programs with that of the United States, there is little reason the U.S. should be willing to accept anything short of transparency, if only for national security reasons. More to the point, however, one can hardly understand diplomacy without knowing one’s counterparts. This has important implications for such aspects as technology transfer and safeguards as well.
  • Engage broadly throughout Asia. In principle, there is no reason the United States should not engage China in a cautious and contingent discussion of space cooperation. But there are other Asian space powers, including American friends and allies, and the United States should engage them as well. Given the foundations already established with Japan and India, the United States should make clear that it is prepared to cooperate with all of the Asian space powers, especially when those states meet basic criteria of openness and accountability.

Dean Cheng is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.