US-China space cooperation is up in the air more than ever

It’s no secret that the United States has been moving towards a more confrontational approach towards China, but the role of outer space in Sino-U.S. relations is growing as China emerges as a leader in space exploration. Although the USSR led the world in exploring space with the first satellite (Sputnik, 1957), the first lunar probe (Luna, 1959), the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961) and the first space station (Salyut, 1971), since the U.S. placed a man on the moon (Apollo 11, 1969), the U.S. has been the undisputed leader in in the exploration of outer space. 

For most of the time since Apollo, China was not a factor in space exploration and thus was excluded from the ISS, but since 2003, when China’s Space Administration placed a man in orbit (Shenzhou 5), China has pursued an aggressive program aimed at becoming a — or the — leader in exploring outer space. This has led to several Chinese accomplishments, including: building the world’s largest radio telescope (FAST, 2020), and a space station that is comparable to the ISS (Tiangong, 2021-2036); the first soft landing on the far side of the moon (Chang’e 4, 2019); collecting and returning to Earth samples from the moon’s surface (Chang’e 5, 2020); and sending a rover to Mars that conducts experiments and sends back panoramic, high-definition photographs (Zhurong rover, 2021.) 

Within the next decade, Chinese authorities promise much more, including enormous satellite constellations for communications, returning samples from the surface of Mars for scientific study, a human moon landing, a permanent manned station on the moon, the world’s largest space telescope and exploratory missions to asteroids, Jupiter and Uranus.  

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The extent to which the Chinese and Russian space programs will link is not fully understood, although numerous reports suggest that they have already linked up and will expand their cooperation on the Moon, Mars and outer space. The ISS will probably end its operation by the mid-2020’s, making it possible that Tiangong will then be the only manned space station.

Throughout China’s space growth, there has been little cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese programs. This was initially the result of the so-called “Wolf Amendment,” first enacted in 2011 as a one-year limitation on U.S.-Chinese cooperation in outer space and re-approved by Congress every year since. This law does not prohibit U.S.-Chinese cooperation in outer space, but it severely restricts it by, among other things, requiring that before any outer space cooperation with China takes place, the FBI must certify that the cooperation includes no risk that national security-related information is provided to the Chinese side.

Since a great deal of all information about America’s space programs could potentially have a dual civilian/commercial and a national security use, it’s not surprising that very few FBI certifications of “no risk whatsoever” have taken place.

And thus, virtually no cooperation between the space leaders has occurred.

This legally-based limitation has recently been strengthened by the rising chorus of defense-minded policy advocates who firmly advocate for little or no cooperation between the United States and China in virtually every field.

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Those advocating for a more confrontational U.S. approach to China often find these legal restrictions on space cooperation with China the minimum necessary to protect American security and they tend to tie their support for any U.S.-China space cooperation to such things as China’s approach to Hong Kong, Taiwan, trade practices, and minorities. Their evidence includes the very close relationship between the Chinese space program and the People’s Liberation Army and allegations of Chinese scientific espionage for decades.

Other defense-minded policy advocates take the opposite view, however: They tend to cite the fact that the U.S. boycott of space cooperation with China has done nothing to slow down the Chinese space program — and it has probably strengthened it by making the Chinese program autonomous. Moreover, they argue that, given China’s enormous programs to explore outer space and conduct scientific experiments combined with China’s plans to collaborate with other countries, the U.S. boycott of space cooperation with China will only limit our own science and isolate us. Their evidence would be the inability of American scientists to examine the new Chinese moon rocks or use the world’s largest radio telescope or use their planned giant space telescope.

Two enormously important public figures have entered this debate, neither of whom could be considered either uninformed about U.S. outer space polices or soft-headed about the Chinese Communist Party: Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley — States probe the tech giants Equilibrium/Sustainability — Bald eagle comeback impacted by lead poison Tesla puts Cybertruck production on hold until early 2023: report MORE, the world’s wealthiest and most successful capitalist and a premier military space contractor; and Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, a Marine Corps combat veteran of Vietnam and Desert Thunder, NASA astronaut, and NASA administrator under President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNew year brings more liberated Joe Biden  After the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage MORE.

In September, Musk sent shockwaves through the space policy communities in both U.S. and China by tweeting that there should be “some amount of cooperation” between the U.S. and China in outer space activities. Although some China-hardliners dismiss Musk’s call as a marketing gimmick for Tesla, it’s impossible to ignore the facts that he is extremely well-informed, his defense-orientation is beyond question, and his capitalist credibility is unmatched.

In contrast, Gen. Bolden has consistently called for cooperation between the U.S. and China in outer space activities. Speaking at a policy forum sponsored by The Hill in October, Bolden said we can work collaboratively with China on space if we just put our minds to it.

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All of this has left America’s commercial space industry up in the air, as they consider China as a supplier or as a market.

What next?

While there are numerous signs that many scientists would prefer that politics and defense policies be kept out of space science cooperation — and that some Biden officials and foreign leaders might prefer to increase space science cooperation with China — outer space is now recognized as a primary theater of war — and China is cited by many as America’s principal adversary.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C.  He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.