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

by Christopher Stone
Monday, February 25, 2013

Over the past several months, there have been many calls, some by former NASA leaders, 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.

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.

Read more: The Space Review: US cooperation with China in space: Some thoughts to consider for space advocates and policy makers.

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