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Shenzhou illustration
while the US and China may be willing to engage in some forms of space cooperation, it may be a long time before the US is willing to allow a Shenzhou spacecraft to visit the ISS. (credit: CNSA)

Cooperation with China: still dancing on eggs

Scientific and technological cooperation between free and unfree nations is a tricky and sometimes nasty business. What makes the US relationship with China even more difficult is that the new Middle Kingdom is not entirely an “unfree” society. They actually do respect the free market and China’s people are, within limits, able to buy and sell like real capitalists in a real economy. This could be taken away from them tomorrow if the government decided to, but since the vast majority of the Chinese people have had their basic living standards considerably raised without, so far, challenging the political power of the Communist party, there is no reason to think things will change in the near future.

International scientific cooperative programs are easier to start than to stop: commitments are made and constituencies are created that make cancellation a difficult and politically painful process. Therefore the US government is going to think long and hard before it agrees to allow China to play a major role in the International Space Station or in the Vision for Space Exploration. There is a strong case for some kind of US-Chinese space project, if only to establish the kind of personal links that will ensure minimal levels of trust and understanding in the future.

From China’s perspective cooperation in space with the US would not only give them possible access to technology, but. more importantly, would be a major source of prestige.

Some people feel that China’s rise to the status of a global superpower rivaling the US is inevitable. This feeling is similar to the predictions back in the 1980s that Japan was going to overtake the US. Any cooperative project based on the idea that if we are “nice” to China now they will be “nice” to us later is a delusion. If we can be sure of one thing, it is that China’s leaders will do what they think is in their best interests regardless of sentiment. This is the same government that crushed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in front of the world’s TV cameras in 1989.

Other nations feel differently. The Europeans, who were trying to lift their arms embargo on China last year, are already cooperating with China on the Galileo satellite navigation system and are anxious to work with them on other space projects. If China’s goal is to use its space program to gain access to militarily useful technology, it hardly needs cooperation with the US to do so.

From China’s perspective cooperation in space with the US would not only give them possible access to technology, but. more importantly, would be a major source of prestige. “Face” is, as several generations of China experts have told us, a very important part of Chinese culture. By treating China as a partner in the exploration of the solar system the US would be offering the Chinese government something they cannot get from the Europeans or the Russians. The US should be careful about what it asks for in return.

Since NASA likes to operate on the “no exchange of funds” principle, and for obvious political reasons, there can be no question of asking the Chinese to finance anything, or of the US paying for Chinese hardware. Integrating US instruments on a Chinese probe is possible but the technology of such instruments can have military applications. The Synthetic Aperture Radar scheduled to orbit the Moon on India’s Chandrayan probe is a good example of why America only allows trusted friends to have access to such devices.

Still, there is room for the US to work with China on some kinds of exchanges. NASA and the Pentagon should draw up a list of technologies that would be attractive to the Chinese and whose loss would not represent a threat to US forces. We can expect China to have a parallel list of its own and that they will want to fly their instruments on our future probes. As long as we take a few basic precautions this should be acceptable.

If, over four or five years, enough trust between the US and China is built up, then and only then should the US agree to allow a Shenzhou to dock at the ISS.

However, the basic deal that the US government should offer China should be based on the principle of “Access for Access”. China can be allowed to openly cooperate with the US space program to the exact same extent that the US openly cooperates with China. This means for example that Americans should be able to visit China’s space centers with the same degree of openness that Chinese visitors can see US ones. It would be nice to imagine thousands of American tourists wearing CNSA t-shirts they’d bought at Xichang or Taiyuan.

Even better would be if NASA Administrator Mike Griffin were to offer the Chinese a chance to host a new antenna for the NASA Deep Space Network. This would give American scientists and engineers access to China on a regular basis and would allow China to be part of this planet’s best and longest established “big ears”. If, over four or five years, enough trust between the US and China is built up, then and only then should the US agree to allow a Shenzhou to dock at the ISS. One hopes that by then China will agree to fly paying customers, including space tourists and US astronauts.

First, however, the two sides must learn to trust each other. That is not going to be easy, but nothing in this business ever is.


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