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Shenzhou and space station
Allowing China to participate in the International Space Station could provide some practical benefits, but carries both technical and political risks. (credit: CNSA)

The China gambit

When Richard Nixon became president in early 1969, the nation was at war in Vietnam. America’s enemy in that conflict received military assistance from the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent China. Early in his term Nixon became interested in improving ties with China. There were a number of reasons for this: China and the Soviet Union were enemies, China was not yet a strategic threat to the United States, and Nixon recognized an opportunity to create an alliance with China that would make things more difficult for the Soviet Union. He told Henry Kissinger to work on the issue. Kissinger made a secret visit to China, and eventually the United States and China were able to develop an alliance. By February 1972, despite criticism from American conservatives, Nixon actually visited China during a historic and symbolic trip that also included substantive agreements on things such as trade and diplomatic communications. That alliance made the Soviet Union nervous and ultimately led to better US-Soviet relations, including leadership visits, arms control agreements, and even a rendezvous between American and Soviet spacecraft. Nixon was a miserable SOB and a terrible president, but his China gambit was a masterful example of strategic flanking.

The Nixon example demonstrates many things, including just how unpredictable international affairs can be—who would have thought in 1969 that an American president would be walking along the Great Wall only three years later? But it also demonstrates that relationships between enemies, even those fighting proxy wars against each other, do not have to stay static, or hostile. Today the American relationship with both China and with Russia is far better than it was in 1969, and simultaneously more, and less, complicated.

A Cold War between China and the United States is not inevitable, just as perpetual hostility between the United States and China beyond 1969 was not inevitable.

Yet there is a strong view around the world and in American politics on all parts of the political spectrum that views a future Cold War between the United States and China as inevitable. The people who hold this view reason that China is in rapid economic and military ascendancy, the United States is in relative decline (i.e. inflation, the falling dollar, the slide toward recession, perpetual military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a deeply unpopular president), and sometime in the next few decades China and the United States will be bipolar rivals. They view the two countries as lines on a graph, with the U.S. heading down and China heading up. At some point they will cross and there will be Cold War. Some liberals naively welcome such a development, believing that it will place a check on what they view as American unilateralist, even imperialist, actions around the world. Some conservatives equally naively believe that the United States must start building up its arsenal right now and prepare for inevitable conflict.

But of course, a Cold War between China and the United States is not inevitable, just as perpetual hostility between the United States and China beyond 1969 was not inevitable. Things can change, both as a result of powers beyond the control of governments, and as the results of the actions of leaders.

There has been a lot of discussion in the United States about American decline. It has been the topic of many books such as Charles Kupchan’s The End of the American Era, Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, and the most well known, Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. But the American decline—assuming that it is real and not a temporary cyclical event—could still reverse, and it is important to consider that much of this discussion of decline is ideologically driven and exaggerated, either by people who wish it to happen, or those who want to avert it. Consider that the United States has experienced numerous periods where many people considered it in decline: the Sputnik crisis, the “multipolar reality” of the late 1960s, the Oil Crisis of 1973, Jimmy Carter’s malaise era, and Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overstretch” theory and fears of Japanese ascendancy in the 1980s. Some of these perceived declines were nonexistent (Sputnik), and others badly conceived (imperial overstretch), and others reversed when the “threat” fell apart (OPEC, Japan). And of course the Soviet Union fell apart, leaving the United States in the role of unrivaled world leader for nearly two decades, despite most theorists’ predictions. The Prophets of Doom have some explaining to do.

Similarly, the Chinese ascendancy could also reverse. Severe structural weaknesses underlie China’s economic growth. Furthermore, many aspects of China’s political, economic, and military growth have been exaggerated. China’s foreign interests also are mostly confined to trading around the world and maintaining control of those territories that it considers traditionally Chinese, like Tibet and Taiwan. China has not demonstrated an interest in fomenting revolution around the world for decades. China has been modernizing its military, but it has not demonstrated an interest in substantially increasing its strategic capabilities, such as rapidly developing a blue water navy or changing its strategic nuclear posture. Taiwan can always flash up, but for the most part China has a greater commercial interest in the rest of the globe than it does an ideological interest, a situation that did not exist during the Cold War. Finally, the Chinese, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, have an interest in a healthy United States, which can purchase its products and borrow its money (at interest)—China does not want to bury the Americans, they want to buy the Americans, and that can only happen if the Americans are selling (or borrowing).

But most importantly, it is possible for the two countries to deliberately avoid a hostile superpower rivalry by maneuvering themselves out of one. They could mutually agree that military confrontation on a strategic basis is simply unwise, and unprofitable. They could take steps to improve communications and relations. And space exploration could serve as one tool for navigating the two powers away from a future adversarial relationship.

Space triangulation

Last week, former MirCorp CEO, Jeffrey Manber proposed in an op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times that the United States could effectively engage China in space cooperation. Manber has essentially proposed taking a page from the Nixon playbook and using China to triangulate against Russia in space. He argues that China has newly-developed space capabilities that the United States could use, and the United States has something that China would like, access to the International Space Station (ISS). Such access would be highly symbolic and prestigious, declaring that China has arrived as a major space power and is recognized as a peer by the other space powers.

The United States and China do have stable, non-hostile diplomatic relations with each other. But the two countries have no history of even minor cooperation in space.

Manber’s proposal is clever and thought-provoking. He has not simply proposed cooperation with China for its own sake, or even for the benefit of improving relations with China, but to use such cooperation as a lever against the Russians. This is not the first time that someone has proposed that encouraging China in space could have strategic benefits for the United States—four years ago I wrote about the benefits of a cooperative/competitive space race with China (see “The benefits of a new space race”, The Space Review, April 26, 2004), suggesting that we encourage them to spend money on human spacecraft instead of missiles. But Manber is apparently the first to suggest that we use China to moderate the Russians, something that Nixon gained as a side benefit of his China rapprochement nearly four decades ago.

Manber makes several substantive arguments:

  • Chinese participation in ISS could eliminate America’s total dependence for manned access to the space station
  • By creating more manned transportation options to low Earth orbit, cooperation could help the US in its goal to return to the Moon
  • Civil space cooperation could provide a forum for discussions on strategic space issues
  • The United States could gain another space partner instead of a competitor
  • The cost of the ISS is still rising, and if another country wants to help pay, the United States should let them

The boldest of these proposals is using China’s Shenzhou spacecraft as another means for American astronauts to access the ISS. But that proposal is too ambitious both politically and technically.

Politically, it is necessary to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. The United States and China do have stable, non-hostile diplomatic relations with each other. But the two countries have no history of even minor cooperation in space. If they are going to cooperate on space issues, they should, and almost surely would, start small, first by sharing scientific data, then possibly cooperating on robotic scientific missions. Another relatively easy first step would be flying a Chinese astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle (although time is running out for that opportunity). Then, after the scientists are talking to each other, and both sides have figured out who does what in their respective space programs, the United States could propose the bolder step of allowing a Shenzhou to dock with the ISS. But this relationship will take many years to develop, and the United States will be dependent upon Russia for sole access to the ISS starting in three years, so utilizing Shenzhou for alternate access to the ISS may not be realistic for five to seven years at the earliest.

But there are also technical problems with this proposal to rely upon the Shenzhou. For starters, the United States has limited knowledge of and therefore no confidence in the Chinese manned spacecraft. To date, Shenzhou has flown only twice with humans aboard. The second flight took place two years after the first, and the third, scheduled for this year, will be three years after the second. It is doubtful that the Chinese themselves can have much understanding and confidence in the vehicle considering how rarely they actually fly it. If they were moving any slower, they’d be going backward. Each new flight accomplishes more than the last, but they may be losing experience they have gained—you can climb stairs with less steps if take them three at a time, but you also run the risk of falling and breaking your neck.

Until the Chinese have flown multiple Shenzhous and gained significant experience, NASA would not want to put astronauts on their vehicle. And until they have demonstrated that they can dock successfully, NASA will never want to let Shenzhou anywhere near the ISS. When Americans first flew aboard the Soyuz, it had a long and impressive history of reliability and of docking with other spacecraft. We knew it worked. We do not know that about the Shenzhou, and that is important before we choose to make it a cornerstone of our space access policy.

But that will change over time. China will gain more experience—although they really should increase their flight rate significantly if they are serious about not undercutting their own gains. If they successfully spacewalk and successfully rendezvous, and demonstrate this latter capability multiple times, then China will have much more to offer at less risk to the United States. At that point, they will create more manned space transportation options that the United States could choose to use in the Moon exploration program.

It is also possible that in the interim, the possibility of the United States turning toward China’s Shenzhou will help to moderate Russian behavior regarding the ISS. If Russia has a five-year monopoly on manned spaceflight, they can jack up the price. If they have a Chinese competitor, they may be deterred from doing so.

Manber is apparently the first to suggest that we use China to moderate the Russians, something that Nixon gained as a side benefit of his China rapprochement nearly four decades ago.

Manber’s third point is a good one: communication between the U.S. and China is poor concerning strategic space issues. There is some evidence that the Chinese leadership was surprised at the world reaction to their January 2007 ASAT test. Creating ties in civil space cooperation will allow the two countries to engage each other better. American history is filled with examples where back channel communications proved vital during periods of strained relations (witness the Cuban Missile Crisis). It is to the United States’ benefit to have the phone numbers of a few people in the Chinese space establishment to call up the next time relations grow tense.

The fourth point about gaining a partner instead of a competitor is probably of lesser importance. Just as the ISS has not changed the United States’ overall strategic relationship with Russia, cooperating with China in space will not fundamentally alter the two powers’ strategic positions. There may be some benefits of sharing scientific data, but we already have examples where cooperation does not prevent countries from pursuing redundant scientific efforts—for example, we could share all of our lunar science data with India, but they would still want to build their own spacecraft. And there are benefits to competition as well in spurring innovation, or simply encouraging China to spend money on something peaceful, like human spaceflight. So the benefits of cooperation for its own sake are not readily apparent.

As for helping to defray the costs of the ISS, it is doubtful that engaging China could have any effects on this. The long history of space cooperation demonstrates that it does not save any money. At best, it expands capabilities, providing opportunities that one country could not afford on its own. For example, the European Space Agency provided the Huygens Titan lander. This did not save the United States money on the Cassini spacecraft, and probably increased the cost and complexity of the mission, but it added a component that NASA could not afford on its own. Similarly, Russian cooperation on ISS was vital to keeping the station operating after the shuttle Columbia accident. So China is not going to save the United States money on ISS, but it is possible that at some point in the future China could add something (perhaps launch of the grounded, but highly desirable centrifuge module?) that could benefit the United States.

page 2: the China hawks >>