The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NSRC 2020

Shenzhou docking illustration
As China continues advancements in its space program, is there a role for greater cooperation with the US? (credit: CNSA)

Beginning the journey of a thousand miles?

Prospects and pitfalls of Sino-American space cooperation

As the Obama Administration takes shape, it is already clear that there will be new thinking about space security. According to press reports, one initiative will be to create a new arms control regime, banning the development and deployment of space weapons.

Part of the impetus for such a ban is the desire to foster greater confidence in Sino-American military relations. The recent incident with the USNS Impeccable in the waters south of Hainan (interestingly, near where the Chinese are constructing a new space-launch facility), echoing the EP-3 incident of April 2001, underscores the uncertainty that permeates that relationship.

These tensions directly affect space operations. The Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test of two years ago is seen as a challenge to US access to space. Coupled with the subsequent US destruction of the satellite USA 193, there has been concern about the possibility of a Sino-American space arms race.

In order to avoid such an arms race, various quarters have called for greater Sino-American cooperation in space. However, for cooperation to succeed, the two sides’ decision-makers need to set common goals. This is complicated in the Sino-US case by several considerations.

For cooperation to succeed, the two sides’ decision-makers need to set common goals. This is complicated in the Sino-US case by several considerations.

In the first place, the two states have little history of formal cooperative efforts, either in space or more broadly. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the 1999 bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade, the two have repeatedly gone through political and diplomatic rough patches. Moreover, there are only limited incentives to cooperate in space, given the technological disparities between the two states’ scientific and industrial bases. For all the impressive advances of the Chinese space program, there is little evidence that the Chinese are fielding space technology that is in advance of, or even necessarily comparable to, that of the United States. Given the high-technology and dual-use natures of space systems, there is great hesitancy in many quarters of the United States to engage in cooperation with the PRC, for fear of industrial espionage and the potential of aiding the development of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

This is exacerbated by difficulties in determining Chinese decision-makers and their possible goals.

Chinese opacity

By now, it is a truism that China’s space program is opaque. But what does this mean?

It is not that the Chinese divulge no information about their space program. Indeed, over the course of the Shenzhou program, for example, the Chinese have steadily shown themselves to be more willing to allow their space activities to be televised. Moreover, China has published two space white papers, in 2000 and 2006, which provide a good indication of the short- and medium-term goals of the PRC space program. The Chinese have also written publicly about various components of their space program, including launch sites, types of launch vehicles, and specifications for certain satellites, including the DFH-4 bus, which serves as the basis for the Nigerian satellite NigComSat-1 and the Venezuelan satellite Simon Bolivar.

What is not discussed, however, is Chinese space decision-making. Two years after the ASAT test, for example, there is still only speculation about a number of key issues.

  • Which Chinese decision-makers were involved?
  • Was it undertaken with explicit authorization by Hu Jintao?
  • What was the decision-making role of the PLA?

The Chinese motives underlying the test remain similarly unclear. Was it the result of bureaucratic inertia? Was it trying to signal the United States on the need to negotiate a space arms control deal? Was it part of a deterrent message, either regarding Taiwan or more broadly? Inquiring minds might want to know, but China has not been forthcoming in answering any of these questions.

Nor is the ASAT test an isolated example. There has been no official delineation of how the China National Space Agency (CNSA), ostensibly in charge of China’s civilian space program, relates to the larger Chinese bureaucracy. For most of its existence, CNSA was embedded within the Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND), a higher ministerial entity that oversaw many of China’s defense industries. That relationship was also only rarely discussed.

The Commission was downgraded in a March 2008 Chinese governmental reorganization, which saw many parts of the space bureaucracy subsumed under, after several iterations, what is now called the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). Yet, there has yet been little indication of whether CNSA remains subordinate to this lower entity (the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense or SASTIND), is its bureaucratic equivalent, or is now independent of the military-industrial bureaucracy.

More troubling is the lack of explanation on how CNSA relates to the PLA, and specifically the General Armaments Department (GAD)—one of the four General Departments that manages the PLA. The GAD is apparently responsible for managing all of China’s space infrastructure, i.e., its launch facilities and mission control centers. It will also, according to press reports, be responsible for the new Chinese space lab (the Tiangong). Yet, despite its importance, the GAD is rarely mentioned in official Chinese documents on their space program.

Incompatible goals

If cooperation is complicated by Chinese opacity, the question of compatible goals raises further challenges. If the United States is concerned with reducing the prospect of industrial espionage, and the Chinese are unprepared to be more forthcoming and open about how their system functions, then what is the purpose of cooperation?

Some have posited that it is in the US interest to cooperate with China, because the United States is more dependent on space at the present time. It has never been clear, however, why American reliance on space would cause others to forego the ability to threaten that Achilles’ heel—any more than why others would not target, for example, American oil imports (insofar as that can be threatened). From both a military and larger political and economic context, if the US is dependent upon space, then it is a vulnerability that will be targeted. And so long as Taiwan independence remains an issue, with the US committed to preventing a takeover of the island by force, then the PRC has little choice but to prepare for the possibility of conflict with the United States.

If the United States is concerned with reducing the prospect of industrial espionage, and the Chinese are unprepared to be more forthcoming and open about how their system functions, then what is the purpose of cooperation?

Conversely, some have suggested that the PRC is likely to be amenable to such efforts, since its own dependency on space is increasing. While this might be true, in the first place it is not clear just how much the PRC is prepared to allow itself to become dependent on space. The Chinese experience with the Soviet Union in the 1950s still serves as an object lesson in the importance of what Hu Jintao has termed “autonomous innovation.”

Moreover, the strategic context of the two nations is very different. For the foreseeable future, the PRC is likely to be focused on its periphery for most of its strategic military activities. The Taiwan scenario, in particular, is likely to remain the paramount contingency for the PLA. The space requirements for supporting military operations against an island 100 miles off China’s shores are very different from those for supporting an expeditionary military such as the United States is likely to field for the same foreseeable future.

None of this is to suggest that cooperation in space is undesirable or impossible. Rather, it is to underscore that any such cooperation is likely to occur only after extensive mutual negotiation. As important, it will require reconciling the two sides’ very different reliance on space, and different views of each other.

Prospects for cooperation

Given these pitfalls, what are the prospects for space cooperation between Beijing and Washington?

If there is to be any chance of success, there are working-level and strategic level prerequisites that first must be satisfied. In the first place, it will require both sides to understand the other’s approach to negotiations. These are substantially different.

The American approach, in the broadest sense, is one in which negotiations begin by establishing specifics or creating precedents. This is integral to the idea of confidence-building measures, with small steps leading up to larger, more encompassing efforts. The whole intent is the exact opposite, with American negotiators generally trying to avoid generalities in order to not become entangled in political differences.

For Chinese negotiators, it is precisely the political and the ideological which must be first established. Thus, in general, Chinese negotiators seek first to establish sets of principles that will then govern and guide all subsequent efforts. One staple of Chinese international bargaining, for example, is the “five principles of peaceful co-existence”:

  • Mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty
  • Mutual non-aggression
  • Mutual non-interference in internal affairs
  • Equality and mutual benefit
  • Peaceful coexistence

Once these principles are agreed upon, specific details are often left to lower-level officials—with the principles invoked whenever the specifics are seen as running counter to them.

In essence, Chinese negotiators tend to adopt a “top-down” approach, with senior leaders focusing on broad principles, whereas American negotiators more frequently adopt a “bottom-up” approach, with working level officials focusing on concrete measures.

Given the fundamental issues of trust (linked to opacity), these differences in approach to negotiations, and the lack of precedent in space cooperation between the two states, any effort at expanding cooperation will entail a strategic level decision on both sides to commit substantial political capital to this end.

It is far more likely to serve the interests of both sides to learn to crawl together before striving to (space)walk jointly.

Moreover, in light of the concerns about technology transfer, industrial and military espionage, as well as the uncertainty of military-to-military relations, high-visibility projects, such as cooperation in manned space efforts, is likely to arouse substantial opposition. The recent incident involving a US Navy vessel south of Hainan will only exacerbate concerns and raise doubts about the desirability of extensive cooperation.

It would seem, then, that setting the bar too high too early is only a formula for disappointment on both sides. And a failed effort at cooperation will only deepen suspicions on each side of the other’s intentions and viability as a future partner.

Instead, it is far more likely to serve the interests of both sides to learn to crawl together before striving to (space)walk jointly. In light of the limited interactions between the two sides’ space programs, establishment of additional working groups between the two sides to foster dialogue is far more likely to create a payoff without engendering nearly the same level of opposition. Establishing common standards and procedures, for example, to facilitate interaction is less likely to entail revelations about manufacturing procedures and industrial processes.

Such discussions would also allow each side to gain more familiarity with both the individuals and bureaucracies that constitute their counterpart. If the United States, in particular, is to engage in extensive, extended cooperation with the PRC in space, then it will be essential to know who their opposite numbers are, and where they fit into the larger scheme of the Chinese bureaucracy.