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Ilustration of Shenzhou docking
As China’s space capabilities grow, so do calls for cooperation. How much caution is warranted, though, given Chinese approaches to technology acquisition? (credit: CNSA)

US cooperation with China in space: Some thoughts to consider for space advocates and policy makers

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Over the past several months, there have been many calls, some by former NASA leaders,1 for the United States to pursue space cooperation agreements with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in both manned and unmanned mission areas. In the space advocacy community, jumping on this bandwagon has become popular. This paper seeks to explore this topic of US space cooperation with China, provide a bit of strategic context pertaining to US space policy makers as well as space advocates and enable a better understanding of the situation regarding China and space engagement.

Cooperation in space: Differing formats and types

Before exploring the two primary positions concerning China and US, it’s important to note that there are many different types of space cooperation internationally. A few examples include: the transfer of technology and technical know-how needed to build and advance spacecraft design and operations; cooperation regarding space policies and treaties; and cooperation where scientific information gained through space exploration and research can and have been shared with other nations.

Just because one form of cooperation is not allowed, it doesn’t mean that other types couldn’t possibly be worth pursuing in the near term.

The first of the examples mentioned, space technology transfer and technical know-how, is what is covered under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Due to the changes in export control law, the President now has authority again to review what technologies or know-how can be exported. Enabling the Shenzhou spacecraft to dock at the ISS would be included in this arena. This has some exceptions, which will be covered in the next section. This is the area that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and company are concerned with, mainly given several issues concerning espionage and counterfeit parts in spacecraft.

The second example, space policy and treaty negotiations, are covered by the President’s Article II power to negotiate treaties with foreign powers. Most of this can occur, and does, through multilateral forums such as UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) or through bilateral engagements such as project memoranda of agreements between federal departments and agencies and other nations’ counterparts. These discussions include items such as anti-satellite weapons, global exploration strategies, as well as codes of responsible behavior. All of these are very strategic, policy-level discussions and in many cases don’t cross the technical information threshold that lead to ITAR-controlled conversations, but it does happen at times. Sometimes, these types of engagements can be referred to as “dialogues”.

The third example, sharing scientific and situational awareness information, has been going on since the Space Age began. During the Cold War, science information was shared between the US National Academy of Sciences and the Soviet Academy of Sciences regarding astronomy and other observations by satellites. Partnerships including our Cold War adversary included the International Geophysical Year (IGY), when Sputnik was launched. This type of information also includes situational awareness to avoid satellite collisions. Several agreements to share information with nations and private companies have been ongoing for years, compliments of US Strategic Command2. Another modern example of international sharing of scientific information involving China is when Chinese and American scientific organizations periodically host symposia discussing various topics such as dark matter and other areas of physics and astronomy.

All of this is mentioned to preface this discussion and to provide the background needed to understand that just because one form of cooperation is not allowed, it doesn’t mean that other types couldn’t possibly be worth pursuing in the near term, should there be benefit for our country advancing its space capabilities and leadership globally. Granted, there are various views on how to go about international engagement with China: for simplicity, this paper has put them into two groups: anti-engagement and pro-engagement with China.

The anti-China vs. pro-China space cooperation positions

In the last few years, one of the biggest opponents of engagement with the Chinese in space has been Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican representing Virginia’s 10th district, outside Washington. Following the visit of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to China in 2011, Congressman Wolf stated during a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations:

I want to be clear: the United States has no business cooperating with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to help develop its space program. We also should be wary of any agreements that involve the transfer of technology or sensitive information to Chinese institutions or companies, many of which are controlled by the government and the PLA.3

His reasoning behind this was stated as well in his remarks:

Space is the ultimate “high ground” that has provided the U.S. with countless security and economic advantages over the last 40 years. As the victor of the Cold War “space race” with the Soviet Union, the U.S. has held an enormous advantage in space technology, defense capabilities, and advanced sciences—generating entirely new sectors of our economy and creating thousands of private sector jobs.

China has developed its own space program at a surprising pace, having gone from launching their first manned spacecraft to launching components for an advanced space station in just 10 years.

But the Chinese space program is being led by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and to state the obvious, the PLA is not our friend as evidenced by their recent military posture and aggressive espionage against U.S. agencies and firms. “4

In addition to his concern about military aggressiveness and advancing space efforts, he also has concerns about Chinese human rights abuses as well. In response to the engagement efforts of the Administration with Chinese space leaders (such as Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Director Dr. John Holdren going to China several times, and NASA Administrator Bolden’s trip to China), the Congressman decided to act:

So, I included language in Section 1340 of the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Resolution preventing NASA and OSTP from using federal funds "to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.5

The Obama Administration disagrees with the law as well as with a GAO report that came out stating that OSTP and NASA violated the law when they continued dialogues with China on science and technology work. The Administration takes the position that they were able to continue their work due to the President’s constitutional authority to negotiate with foreign governments.

Some on the pro-China engagement view believe that Rep. Wolf is over-reacting to a non-issue. Joan Johnson-Freese, Chairman of the National Security Decision Making Department at the US Naval War College, told CBS News in 2011:

“I think (the bill) is fool-hearted… We ought to be working with them on things like space debris and we also should be working with them so that we can learn more about their program.”

“There are a number of members of Congress who are adamant we will not work with China,” said Johnson-Freese. “Meanwhile, China is reaching out and working with many, many countries.”6

As discussed earlier, the Wolf Amendment covers a broad range of activities regarding space cooperation with the Chinese; however there are some cooperative actions that continue outside of NASA and OSTP. Those include engagements with the State Department at the UN as well as military-to-military engagements discussing what are known as transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs). So to Dr. Johnson-Freese’s concern, this won’t be totally forbidden by the Wolf Amendments restrictions on OSTP and NASA.

The phrase “national interests” seems to indicate that both the PRC and the US share some common national interests and that space cooperation would benefit both of our strategic goals and objectives as nation-states. Is this plausible?

Another set of space notables, George Abbey and Leroy Chiao, believe that the United States should cooperate with the Chinese to regain “dual access” to the International Space Station (ISS), a capability the United States lost with the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. In an editorial in late 2012 with Discovery News, they stated that gaining another foreign space transportation option will ensure American leadership in the ISS project and follow on deep space exploration, if the US were to bring the Chinese on board7. Put another way, they believe that purchasing yet another foreign source of space transportation would ensure US leadership. This author, however, believes that leadership is found through the capability provided8, not through relying on others. This doesn’t mean that cooperation in space with other nations is bad; it just doesn’t always ensure leadership.

Finally, as can probably be surmised by Rep. Wolf’s comments about Bolden’s trip to China, the NASA Administrator is also supportive of direct cooperative projects with the PRC. As stated during a hearing in 2011:

Some level of engagement with China in space-related areas in the future can form the basis for dialogue and cooperation in a manner that is consistent with the national interests of both our countries, when based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit.9 [Emphasis added]

The phrase “national interests” is something to take note of. This seems to indicate that both the PRC and the US share some common national interests and that space cooperation would benefit both of our strategic goals and objectives as nation-states. Is this plausible? To answer this, we need to review the strategic context surrounding China and the United States in space and whether there are facts that support the assertion that space cooperative projects are in the national interest of China and the United States.

Some strategic context for consideration

Many may argue, including official Chinese commentators,10 that the anti-China crowd is living in an old-fashioned “Cold War”11 mentality and that international space cooperation results in a “permanent solution to global crisis.”12 However, others, such as Colin S. Gray, observe that “Strategy has a permanent nature, while strategies have a variable character.”13 In other words, nation states will still conduct activities that serve their best interest, and that includes greater power and influence globally. The US National Space Policy speaks of US global leadership in space, yet it has a tone of internationalism. In contrast, Chinese space policy, while speaking somewhat on cooperation, is mostly about what is best for China. European space policy is similar; their space policy communications document from 2011 has spoken similarly about doing what’s best for “Europe and its citizens”14.

What is this permanent nature of strategy that Gray was referring to, and what is the context of China’s strategic character? Over the last decade, several reports by commissions and US government agencies have identified many policy issues that need to be debated and resolved before serious consideration can be given to space cooperation between China and the United States. If the debates and discussions lead toward a conclusion that space cooperation is in the US’s best interest, through its diplomatic impacts or economic leverage, then cooperation could be explored. What are some of these issues?

Reports in the press throughout 2012 highlighted an aggressive espionage campaign by China with regards to American space technologies.15 This refers to knowledge, equipment, and components. As a report from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) states, a “decades long effort” by China has been underway “to achieve strategic parity with the West.” The means to achieving this strategic parity with the United States “has focused heavily on acquiring advanced technology.”16

To clarify what DTRA means by “acquisition,” the report said that, “acquisitions is broadly interpreted, encompassing a variety of means by which technology comes into PRC possession. It includes external as well as domestic sources of technology, purchases as well as thefts, foreign-assisted developments as well as wholly indigenous achievements, and strictly military-oriented technologies as well as those featuring dual uses.”17

The comment on dual-use space technology is important to note, especially given the law passed by Congress in late 2012 to allow some space-related technologies to be reviewed for removal from the US Munitions List (USML) on ITAR and over to the dual-use list Commerce Control List (CCL). These reviews must, in this author’s opinion, be thorough given the strategic context surrounding space industrial competition as well as international espionage and technology theft in space technology. Given the attention surrounding this issue in Congress and industry, this author believes these reviews will be well crafted. Dual-use technology means something that can have military utility as well as commercial applications. This sounds harmless when thinking of space technology components as “commercial” or “dual-use” items when pursuing cooperative frameworks and perhaps even technology transfers with China in space. However, it’s not that simple.

How does China collect this information or gain technological insight into American space technologies? Through several methods, some of which many in the space community might find surprising.

China has been working hard, according to the DTRA report, to “harness dual use technologies, often developed or acquired through its commercial sector, for use in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) weapons. The principal sources of these technologies are foreign technology purchases, acquisition of Western companies, and cooperative technology transfers as part of commercial activities.” Strategic risks not only include the military instruments of national power, but also economic and diplomatic competitiveness for the United States and its allies. For example, according to the 2012 Futron Corporation Space Competitiveness Index, of the fifteen spacefaring nations analyzed in their study, only China has grown more competitive in the five years since the study began. As for the United States, while still ranked first among spacefaring countries, we were the nation that lost ground consistently in space competitiveness globally during the study’s history.18 So aggressive are China’s practices in obtaining US high tech products that the 2007 report of the US China Economic and Security Review Commission described Chinese espionage efforts as the “single greatest risk to the security of American technologies.”19

How does China collect this information or gain technological insight into American space technologies? Through several methods, some of which many in the space community might find surprising. In addition to the standard state spy-agency-type espionage and collection/theft of US space technologies, there are “private sector” entities that collect on behalf of the Chinese government. According to reports, “One distinctive feature of Chinese technology acquisition is the autonomy given to research institutes, corporations, and other entities to devise collection schemes according to their particular needs. These operations, which often involve surreptitious means of obtaining information, occur outside the direct supervision of the state’s intelligence apparatus… Another method of acquiring foreign technology… involves collecting information from scholarly literature and other open sources in the West.”20 (This includes magazines, newspapers, and journals of space technologies among others.) Keep in mind, that this open source collection is not just something that the PRC does, but other nations as well. The point of this part of the report is to acknowledge that regardless of whether a piece of information is classified or not, it could still be valuable information when paired with other information.

Where else have the Chinese taken space technology and policy information from the United States? “A joint CIA/FBI report issued in 1999 on China’s espionage against the United States described the activities of military attaches at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C and the Military Staff Committee at the United Nations, who openly collect information from Western publications,” the DTRA report noted. Other Chinese nationals living abroad, who are usually not in the direct employ of PRC intelligence services, “lawfully gather most science and technology and economic intelligence through open sources, including university libraries, research facilities, and open source databases. The information they compile, while unclassified is nevertheless highly valuable.”21 Some examples include the various strategic space journals, space advocate organization online libraries, and energy research societies’ libraries. In addition, there have been increased concerns about Chinese students serving as embedded spies at American universities.22

While many people seem to believe that the old strategic constructs of Thucydides of “security, prestige and wealth,”23 don’t apply today in the 21st century, they need to listen only to the words of the Chinese leadership. According to one report from DTRA in 2011, “Evidence of this [technology ensuring global power and leadership] mentality can be found in the expression Chinese scientists and engineers use to explain China’s sizable expenditures on its space program—an investment intended to secure ‘a place for one’s mat’ or China’s rightful place among spacefaring nations. For decades the sentiment behind this expression has proven remarkably enduring among the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party. In a widely quoted remark, Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao argued in a 2005 speech that ‘science and technology are the decisive factors in the competition of comprehensive national strength.’”24

What is the reason for China’s apparent denial25 of these goals for “comprehensive national strength” and “securing their rightful place” in the global pecking order of space leadership? According to an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) analysis, “Beijing seeks to constrict America’s presence, alliances, access and influence in Asia and to limit the autonomy of Asian democracies.”26 The bottom line, according to the AEI analysts, is this: “China is committed to a strategic deception campaign that masks Beijing’s ambition to restore what its leaders see as their country’s rightful place at the apex of an Asian and possibly a global hierarchy.”27 In short, there is more to China’s space program than just the glory and prestige of exploring space or having the capability to launch people into orbit. This is part of a grand strategy that seeks to not only lead the world in science and technology but also prevent US diplomatic influence in the Asia-Pacific region and even globally in various arenas, including economic development, national survival, as well as energy resources and control. In addition, it aids their goal of being able to “disrupt U.S. access to intelligence, navigation and communications satellites”28 during conflict or crisis in the Asia-Pacific region as part of the development of Chinese military space forces’ doctrine of “Assassin’s Mace”.29

In Chinese thinking, diplomacy becomes a crucial complement to both economic development and national survival. As an example, an SAIC report notes, Chinese energy diplomacy aims, among several objectives, to “protect China’s existing energy access to meet its growing demand for imported oil, to ease tensions in critical oil producing regions of the world… and to promote Chinese interests in other parts of the world to increase China’s [energy supplies] and foreign resource base.”30 The Chinese, according to their own words, are also looking beyond their gains and investments globally in oil, rare earths, and the like, and aiming for cultivation of resources in space. Thus it is not surprising to see space-based solar power and development of space resources addressed in white papers and reports from the Chinese Academy of Space Technology. These national goals and ambitions, and the role of space, are done with the Chinese national interests in mind, “regardless of the cost to other nations.”31

Both US sides (pro-China and anti-China cooperation) would presumably like to see space exploration and space power benefits for the United States. However, caution is probably the best course of action given all the data collected and presented in the media and the various reports.

Because of these objectives, “it is a sound assumption that China would employ multiple means, including the possibility of strategic deception and perception management, to help achieve these three basic national objectives-survival, development and influence.”32 Put another way, as mentioned before, these are the three Thucydides concepts of security, prestige, and wealth. National power and influence are still alive and well in the world and in space, and the United States and space advocacy groups alike would be wise to acknowledge this and plan their space and energy strategies accordingly. As an SAIC report puts it, “it’s better to understand how the Chinese government does business and pragmatically engage with it while maintaining a healthy skepticism.”33 When developing plans or statements of the supposed need to engage with China, given other allied spacefaring states in the Asia-Pacific region like Japan and Australia, “U.S. representatives should have information about Chinese strategic deception and perception management at their disposal”34 and in their minds.


International cooperation is a great thing. It can be a useful foreign policy tool as well as enable increased space capabilities for the United States and its partners. However, when thinking of engagement with the Chinese, there are more than two ways to look at these issues (anti or pro) that lead to a national-level strategic discussion on how to use space cooperation to achieve national political or economic goals. Some engagement in a lower level, such as what is pursued by the National Academy of Sciences, may be a way forward. Regardless of what happens in the future, these and other issues currently being explored and debated in Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department, NASA, and the White House are important to ensure that the US enters into cooperative projects with open eyes, clear objectives, and a commitment to our values of liberty.

Indeed, some of these issues concerning Congress and other federal entities, can even be discussed in international forums such as the UNCOPUOS as well as international space meetings hosted worldwide using diplomatic and national security channels (even if NASA and OSTP aren’t allowed by law to engage.) Both US sides (pro-China and anti-China cooperation) would presumably like to see space exploration and space power benefits for the United States. However, caution is probably the best course of action given all the data collected and presented in the media and the various reports. There will be opportunities for more public and private debate on this and other vital strategic space policy issues in the coming months as the new Congress kicks into high gear.


1Abbey, George and Chiao, Leroy. “Time for the U.S. to Partner with China in Space?”. Discovery News. November 27, 2012.

2Dykewicz, Paul. “New Participants Sought for SSA Data Sharing”

3 “Wolf: U.S. Should Not Cooperate With People’s Liberation Army to Help Develop China’s Space Program”, November 2, 2011.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Young, Connie. ”Can the US afford to snub China in Space Quest.” CBS News Online. July 7, 2011

7 Abbey and Chiao, 2012.

8 Stone, Christopher. “American leadership in space: leadership through capability”. The Space Review. March 14, 2011.

9 “NASA Chief favors cooperation with China”. November 3, 2011.

10 Wang Aihua and Gui Tao. “China Voice: Cold War mentality fuels US satellite export prejudice”. Xinhua News. Jan 14, 2013.

11 Walcott, John. “Chinese Espionage Campaign Targets U.S. Space Technology”. April 18, 2012.

12 Morris and Cox. International Cooperation for the Development of Space. ATWG Books. 2012.

13 Gray, Colin. Airpower for Strategic Effect. Air University Press. 2012. pp.38

14 Stone, Christopher. “Collective assurance vs. independence in national space policies”. The Space Review. May 16, 2011

15 Walcott, 2012.

16 Chinese Advanced Technologies Acquisition Strategies. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.2011

17 Ibid. 2011

18 2012 Futron Corporation Space Competitiveness Index

19 Report on Chinese Advanced Technologies Acquisition Strategies 2011.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Golden, Daniel. “American Universities Infected by Foreign Spies Detected by FBI”. Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

23 Smith, Michael V. Natural Cosmopolitics. University of Reading. November 2010. P.12

24 Report on Chinese Advanced Technologies Acquisition Strategies 2011.p.8

25 “U.S. accusation against China over space-tech spying comes out of thin air”. English News. Cn April 21, 2012

26 Anderson, Eric and Engstrom, Jeff. China’s Use of Strategic Deception and Perception Management. SAIC. November 2009.P.13

27 Ibid. p.13

28 Walcott, 2012 .

29 Pillsbury, Michael. China’s Military Strategy Toward the U.S.: A View from Open Sources. November 2, 2001. 8- 10

30 Anderson, Eric and Engstrom, Jeff. China’s Use of Strategic Deception and Perception Management. SAIC. November 2009.P.28

31 Ibid.p.28

32 Ibid. p.28

33 Ibid.p.48

34 Ibid. p. 48