Why the US is partnering with Brazil in space race against China

The U.S. took a major step in March to bolster collaboration with Brazil. President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro recently agreed to increasing cooperation in space through a technology safeguard agreement (TSA).

“After 20 years of talks we are finalizing a technology safeguards agreement to allow U.S. companies to conduct space launches from Brazil,” Trump said.

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The agreement fits like a puzzle piece in Trump’s larger space vision. The TSA, which protects sensitive U.S. space technology, opens Brazil up to the possibility of launching U.S. rockets from Brazilian soil, likely from the Alcântara Launch Center. The site was visited by a handful of U.S. space companies — including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Vector, SpaceX, and Microcosm — in December with some showing interest in the site.

Through Alcântara, which offers several incentives to U.S. companies and others, Brazil hopes to dominate the small satellite launch market which the site has been designed to accommodate. Most advantageous is its geographical position — Alcântara is the closest launch site to the equator — which could drop fuel costs as much as 30 percent. Its coastal location is also ideal for transferring equipment and bailing out a rocket if a launch fails.

The U.S. intends to foster commercial partnerships and promote future strategic cooperation with its southern neighbor. TSAs are a significant step for both goals since they are required for countries interested in launching U.S. space technology and ensure that U.S. technology does not fall into the possession of countries outside of these arrangements.

According to some estimates, the global launch industry is expected to grow by $18.38 billion between 2017-2025 and the U.S. is quickly uniting with countries that are investing in domestic launch capabilities. In recent years, the U.S. has secured space launch TSAs with India and New Zealand. Both countries have since launched technology made by U.S. companies, demonstrating the effectiveness of the agreements.

The U.S. and Brazil have been attempting to deepen their space collaboration for years, though progress had been stalled due in part to Brazil’s collaboration with countries like China. Most prominently, the two countries have coordinated on an Earth observation satellite series, the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellites (CBERS). The TSA arrangement will challenge Brazil’s ability to coordinate with China on future space launches.

The U.S. has taken notice of China’s broader space ambitions which have included increased investment and notable achievements. China’s successful touch down of a lunar lander on the far side of the moon — a first for Moon exploration‚ is no exception. Additionally, the country has been developing a heavy-lift launch vehicle, launched 39 rockets in 2018, and has invested over $400 million in its space industry in the last two years.

Historically, Latin America has been a battleground region where cold war contenders compete for commercial and ideological supremacy. Regardless of whether or not a new cold war between the U.S. and China is on the horizon, U.S. policymakers must strengthen partnerships not just with countries in close proximity to China, but with those close to home. The U.S.-Brazil agreement is a good first step towards promoting deeper space cooperation and countering China’s ambitions in the region.

Sean Kelly is the manager of Public Programming & Special Projects at Hudson Institute and writes on space and foreign policy.