The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Remote sensing, like the joint Chinese-Brazilian CBERS satellite effort, might be one realm of cooperation between China and the US. (credit: INPE)

Dancing on eggs: US space cooperation with China

If anyone thinks he can predict the future, just think about how many people on both the American left and right were predicting a long-term degradation in US-Chinese relations after the EP-3 incident in April 2001. Three years later, relations are not exactly friendly, but not exactly hostile either. The Chinese are quietly trying to stop the North Koreans from wrecking the stability and growing prosperity of the East Asia region. They are trying to prove to their neighbors, and to the US, that they want to be a respectable partner in the local geopolitical game. They also want to keep the door open for them to have a larger role on the world’s diplomatic stage at some point in the future. For a nation with the history, geography, economy, and population of China, these ambitions are perfectly reasonable and the US should accommodate them.

However, the Chinese military is still threatening Taiwan. They have yet to show that they are really ready to be America’s full-blown partner in East Asian peace maintenance. China’s military build-up continues but, at the moment, it seems to be fairly modest—at least by communist standards. They are putting resources into new missiles, new submarines and, perhaps, into new asymmetric warfare technologies. China wants to keep its political and military options open. Someday, they may want to pursue regional hegemony through military means. If they are going to confront the US or, perhaps, the US and Japan, they want to do it with as much technology and as little expenditure of blood as possible. This new doctrine is the ultimate repudiation of Mao’s old “people’s war” idea.

Seen from the Chinese point of view, this is a moderate and sensible precaution. Their growing economy and their increasing role in world trade make it unlikely that they will launch any violent military operations any time soon. It makes more sense for them to look for ways to cooperate with the US and Japan, and to thus prove their good intentions. If they find it difficult to do so in the case of North Korea, they hope to find it easy to do so in space.

International space cooperation has a long, and certainly mixed, history. The Apollo-Soyuz mission symbolized Nixon’s détente policy. It allowed American and Soviet astronauts to work together and to get to know each other. The spacefaring brotherhood that now exists can be traced back to that handshake in orbit. On the other hand, Apollo-Soyuz could also be seen as a symbol of America’s willingness to compromise its national interests in the name of good relations with a communist enemy.

International space cooperation has a long, and certainly mixed, history.

A less well-known example is the way that the Italian government decided to cooperate with the US in response to Ronald Reagan’s call to build Space Station Freedom. The Italian government was looking for a high profile way to cooperate with the US. Due to the power of the Italian Communist Party, they could not bring themselves to work with the US on missile defense or any other controversial military project. The Space Station was an acceptable alternative—one that has worked out nicely and has helped put Italy in the forefront of Europe’s space industry.

China is not exactly trying to find a substitute for US-PRC military cooperation. What the Beijing government is doing is looking for ways to leverage their space program so as to produce the maximum benefit. The three main things they hope to gain are technology, information, and prestige. By joining international space efforts, they can advance in all three areas.

In the near and medium term, the most important need for China’s central government is accurate, timely, and comprehensive information from remote sensing satellites. They need this information in order to assess the state of their environment. They may be facing a series of major environmental catastrophes over the next twenty years and, without the early warning provided by multispectral satellite imagery, these catastrophes could come as a surprise or set of surprises. Both NASA and NOAA have considerable expertise, particularly in data analysis, which China would find invaluable. It would be in their national interest to find a legitimate way to gain access to America’s knowledge.

Aside from its obvious military utility, China’s ongoing remote sensing effort probably has an internal political aspect as well. Space imagery provides a relatively cheap and secure way to check up on the activities of local governments that may want to keep certain aspects of their performance hidden from both the financial and the planning authorities. Properly handled, remote sensing data can be a useful tool in any nation’s fight against both corruption and pollution.

China’s human spaceflight effort is more obviously tied to the question of prestige. It was quite an accomplishment for China to become only the third nation on Earth to launch someone into orbit. They are planning to repeat the flight in 2005, and are working on plans that will lead towards a comprehensive human space presence, probably some time in the next decade.

The US response to China’s increasing role in space has been low key—so low key, as to be almost nonexistent. As far as one can tell, official Washington confined itself to a single statement of congratulations from NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. This is not a sign of any carefully laid-out strategy, and if there is any quiet space diplomacy going on, it is exceptionally well hidden. Instead, the US response to China’s space programs is based on several political factors.

First of all, there is the failure of the US government to satisfactorily resolve the “Chinagate” issue left over from the Clinton Administration. The Cox Committee report conclusions that showed China’s comprehensive effort to steal US space technology to improve their ICBMs has been challenged but not disproved. Until there is some definitive answer to the question, “Did China use its commercial launch industry to steal militarily significant technology?” the US Government is going to find it difficult to cooperate with Beijing on anything other than a superficial level.

In the near and medium term, the most important need for China’s central government is accurate, timely, and comprehensive information from remote sensing satellites.

Second, there is the lack of any desire on the part of NASA to stick its collective neck out and risk being told “Hell No!” by the Congress and the Administration. The agency has enough problems to deal with right now and does not need the added stress of trying to push forward a relationship that will not help achieve NASA’s vision or its goals. China might be able to help marginally, but not in the short run.

Third, there is no real constituency inside the Washington foreign policy establishment pushing for US-Chinese space cooperation. The China desk at the State Department does not seem to be interested and the think tanks that deal with Asian issues also seem to lack any interest in making a real effort to work on space cooperation.

Does America need a space relationship with China? Probably yes, but it should be a cautious one, entered into with our eyes wide open. China sees itself as a major future space power. Working with them is the best way to insure that we understand how and why they will achieve this goal. Sometimes, the only way to understand someone’s point of view is to work with them. Also, there is no reason for the US to be in any hurry to begin this relationship.

It should also be based on the overriding principal that the US will only cooperate with China in ways that do not upset our regional friend and allies. In this regard, it would be best if we approached the Chinese almost entirely through our Japanese friends. The US and Japan should first work out the broad goals that both nations wish to achieve in their space relations with China, and then the US should let the Japanese take the lead in negotiating the whole package of cooperative agreements.

There are recent precedents to the idea of letting another nation take the lead and allowing the US to follow. Under Ronald Reagan, the US allowed France to determine much of the US policy in Africa. When Aznar was prime minister of Spain, the US would often follow Madrid’s lead in its relations with Latin America. Giving Japan the leading role in these negotiations will not require any dramatic shifts in US policy, nor will it require the Japanese to commit to any new major expenditures. Instead, it will be the beginning of a long process—one that will involve much feeling out of the other side and a lot of subtle interactions.

The US and Japan should first work out the broad goals that both nations wish to achieve in their space relations with China, and then the US should let the Japanese take the lead in negotiating the whole package of cooperative agreements.

Japan has a far greater stake in the peace and security of Northeast Asia than the US. Likewise, China’s pollution problems have a greater direct and lasting impact on Japan’s environment and quality of life than on the US. Japan is beginning to make a real contribution to its own national security and, in doing so, is showing itself to be a mature, and fairly reliable, partner to the US. There is now no reason why Japan cannot take the leading role in these kinds of negotiations, which involve difficult military technological and economic problems.

Japan has been a reliable, and low maintenance, partner in the International Space Station (ISS) program. They have delivered their Kibo module to Kennedy Space Center for eventual assembly to the ISS. JAXA, Japan’s space agency, is struggling to define itself and to adapt to its new roles. If it were to become the main go-between and negotiator for the US, and possibly for other US allies, it would gain both visibility and stature with the Japanese government. The Japanese space program could grow into a major national asset instead of being a minor center for technology development and scientific research.

The US could work with Japan to figure out the long-term technological and military implications of each part of the China-US-Japan relationship. Japan would find that, as America took its commercial and security interests into account, it would be easier for them to reciprocate. These talks would also fit nicely with Japan’s preference for quiet, and lengthy, negotiations. If the US and China are to find a way to cooperate in space, neither the US nor China should be expected to sacrifice their national interests. Both nations have a stake in the security and prosperity of Japan, which is, after all, the main economic locomotive of the region. It is, therefore, logical to expect Japan to take the lead in bringing the US and China together to work on major international space projects.