The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

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

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The China hawks

Of course, there is a strong anti-China undercurrent in current American conservative politics. These China hawks believe that China is a threat to the United States and object to its authoritarian government, its brutal suppression of dissent, and its opaque military policies. Many of the same things could be said for many American allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Jordan. But at least when it comes to China, these critics have been consistent. The China hawks will primarily object to proposals for cooperation on two grounds: technology transfer and hostile intent.

With regards to technology transfer this issue can be managed. It has been managed before. During the lead-up to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in the early 1970s, the intelligence community and the Department of Defense conducted several studies of the dangers of technology transfer to the Soviet Union. They concluded that the risks were minimal and could be controlled. Those studies have been declassified and could serve as a guide for an approach to China. Certainly the situation is somewhat different, as there is a greater disparity between American and Chinese space technology today than there was between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s. But we do not have to give the Chinese blueprints to the Space Shuttle or ballistic missile guidance technology in order to allow them to rendezvous with the ISS. All foreign visitors to NASA facilities are escorted anyway, so Chinese engineers will not be wandering the halls of the Johnson Space Center, bugging the telephones and cracking the safes.

Besides, technology transfer is a two-way street: it will also give the United States insight into Chinese space technology; we will learn more about what they are doing when we are actually talking to their scientists and engineers.

Technology transfer is a two-way street: US-China cooperation will also give the United States insight into Chinese space technology.

Another objection will be to point to China’s January 2007 test of an ASAT weapon as an indication of how China cannot be trusted with regards to spaceflight. But the Bush administration actually underplayed that event at the time. It was not the United States that first complained to the Chinese about their test. And the White House has kept its rhetoric about the Chinese ASAT to a minimum, choosing to not make speeches in the United Nations or continually raise the issue in diplomatic circles. There are many possible reasons for this. For one, the Bush administration desires Chinese cooperation on a wide number of issues, from trade to pressuring North Korea to helping in the war on terror. The administration also does not view China as a current enemy, although certainly the two countries do not see eye to eye on many things, and has sought at times to defuse potential rifts with China. If the Bush administration believes the issue can be managed, then we should be wary of exaggerating the ASAT test, and not allow it to stand in the way of strategic opportunities.

There is also precedent for this situation. From 1963 to 1972 the Soviet Union conducted numerous ASAT tests, and yet the United States and Soviet Union still conducted the linkup of the Apollo-Soyuz in July 1975. If Soviet ASATs did not stop US-Soviet cooperation in space, why should Chinese ASATs be a deal-breaker for US-Chinese cooperation? And, as Manber astutely noted (see point three above), cooperation can enhance the American position in dealing with China on such strategic space issues.

Do we need another Nixon?

Unlike the late 1960s, improving relations with China does not require dramatic and diplomatically difficult steps. The two countries already have a reasonably cordial relationship and extensive trade. China has an embassy in Washington, for instance, which it did not in 1969. But space cooperation with China will not happen outside of a larger political effort of engagement with China. A NASA administrator cannot choose to do this, a president must choose to do it. The long history of international space cooperation demonstrates that it is but one tool among many in improving relations, and it cannot change strategic relations by itself—witness deteriorating US-Russian relations despite the cooperation on the International Space Station.

It will not require another Richard Nixon to improve relations with China, but it will require someone other than George W. Bush.

However, presidents also have internal disincentives to pursuing space cooperation, because they come with costs. In some instances, space cooperation is also more beneficial to NASA than it is to the president because it makes programs harder to kill. NASA still has a space station largely because canceling it would have been painful internationally. But the existence of the space station has tied the hands of an administration that wants to change the direction of American space policy. And the current administration, which will be gone exactly one year from yesterday, has clearly stated that it desires less cooperation with foreign partners in space rather than more.

The Bush administration, while not seeking a more adversarial relationship with China, has not demonstrated any interest in engaging them in space cooperation despite several opportunities. It is now too late for such an initiative to emerge from this administration and to gain any headway. It will not require another Richard Nixon to improve relations with China, but it will require someone other than George W. Bush.

If the United States is going to make overtures to China regarding space cooperation, that opportunity is only going to arise during the next administration. But it holds promise of providing a new set of tools that the United States does not currently possess. China may indeed have something to offer in space after all.