China, Talk and Cooperation in Space

At the end of June, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, in the course of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, agreed to establish “regular bilateral government consultations on civil space cooperation.” Neither the purpose of these consultations nor the topics they will cover was immediately clear.

The U.S. and Chinese governments already discuss satellite collision avoidance and conduct joint research into greenhouse gas monitoring, severe weather monitoring, space weather and climate science. This cooperation seems to produce little fruit. It certainly has not affected Chinese behavior vis-à-vis its relationship with the United States. Indeed, last fall, hackers in China attacked a U.S. partner to these cooperative relationships, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, leading the agency briefly to stop making satellite weather data available to the public. If this is what it means to cooperate with China in space, the United States is better off without it.

NASA leads civil space activities in the United States. But, as space policy expert Marcia Smith points out, the agency and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are statutorily prohibited from expending any 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.” In short, the State Department just agreed to discuss civil space activities that the relevant U.S. agencies are legally prohibited from pursuing.

It is clear what the Chinese might seek from institutionalizing and deepening a cooperative civil space relationship with the United States. Accelerating Beijing’s learning curve when it comes to space technologies and operations, intelligence collection, technology transfer and political prestige all flow from working with the world’s most advanced space power.

Most space technology is dual-use, meaning hardware, applications and systems developed for civil or commercial purposes have military uses. China recognizes this and often pursues bilateral cooperation in order to enhance its own economic and defense capabilities, not for mutual benefit.

The Defense Department notes that “China’s advanced technology acquisition strategy continues to center on its civil-military integration policy as a means to leverage dual-use technologies to improve its defense industries. Despite improvements to its own indigenous technology development and industrial capacity, China continues to rely on the acquisition of critical advanced and Western dual-use technology, components, equipment, and know-how. These acquisitions manifest in the form of joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, and close business partnerships with, and technology imports from, highly developed countries, primarily of the West, that offer access to critical advanced technology sectors.”

Consequently, the administration appears poised to put the U.S.-Chinese civil space relationship on a path that could eventually benefit the Chinese defense industry as soon as the congressional restrictions expire.

How might cooperation with China benefit the United States? Some hold that cooperation in space helps promote cooperation on Earth. Writing in SpaceNews in 2013, Michael Krepon argued “The more they cooperate in space, the less likely it is that their competition on Earth will result in military confrontation. The reverse is also true.” That sentiment is widespread and flows from the nobility of exploration. If only it were so.

Unfortunately, a country’s space behavior appears to have little affect on its terrestrial actions. Russia’s multidecadal human spaceflight partnership with the United States did not prevent it from invading and destabilizing Ukraine when it moved toward a closer relationship with the European Union, many of whose members are Russian partners in the International Space Station. Space cooperation has not, and will not, prevent the continued worsening of the security environment in Europe, which flows from Russian behavior on Earth, not in space.

Space cooperation with China is similarly unlikely to moderate its behavior. Tensions in Asia derive from China’s insistence on pressing unlawful territorial claims in the Pacific, most recently by transforming disputed coral reefs into would-be military bases. Ironically, civilian space technology has proved critical in documenting these aggressive moves.

To further demonstrate the civil space cooperation does not promote cooperation on Earth, we need look no further than recent history. The NASA administrator’s visit to China in the fall of 2014 nearly coincided with China’s hacking of NOAA, with whom Beijing has a “partnership” in studying climate change.

Military confrontation flows from the interaction of hard power in pursuit of competing national interests. Space cooperation falls into the realm of soft power. It has value in strengthening relationships among like-minded states with similar interests. China’s aggressiveness toward its neighbors, its human rights record and its cyberattacks on the United States strongly demonstrate that it and the United States are not of like minds. This is not the result of insufficient space cooperation, but of divergent national interests. The United States is a status quo power; China is not.

A U.S.-China dialog on space matters can be valuable. Both countries have interests in collision avoidance, debris mitigation and promotion of the open language of science. Greater transparency into Chinese antisatellite activities, of which there are many, would be welcome by many in the international community. There is, however, little compelling reason for those discussions to evolve into civil space cooperation.

With that in mind, congressional oversight will be critical to ensure that the State Department’s “regular bilateral governmental consultations” do not take on a life of their own or create misguided momentum toward an institutional partnership of space programs.

The Apollo 17 astronauts left a plaque on the moon that read, “May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.” It is not a sentiment China shares. Until Beijing subscribes to that philosophy, the U.S.-Chinese space agenda should remain in the realm of conversation and information exchanges, staying away from true cooperation.

Eric Sterner is a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute. He held senior staff positions for the U.S. House Science and Armed Services committees and served in DoD and as NASA’s associate deputy administrator for policy and planning.

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