US-China: Civil Space Dialogue

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US-China: Civil Space Dialogue

In civil space cooperation, some realists finally emerge.

US-China: Civil Space Dialogue
Credit: REUTERS/China Daily

Included on the long list of “outcomes” at the conclusion of the seventh round of U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings in June 2015 was a section on Science, Technology & Agriculture. Included in that section was a short paragraph on … space.

“101. Space: The United States and China decided to establish regular bilateral government-to-government consultations on civil space cooperation. The first U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue is to take place in China before the end of October Separate from the Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue, the two sides also decided to have exchanges on space security matters under the framework of the U.S.-China Security Dialogue before the next meeting of the Security Dialogue.”

The inclusion is remarkable given that other agencies of the U.S. government that deal with space, specifically NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), have been legislatively banned 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” since 2011. That ban was also interpreted to mean that NASA could not host “official Chinese visitors” at NASA facilities. Which raises the question of why one part of the U.S. government would consider dialogue with Chinese officials regarding space important and useful, while another wants to give China the silent treatment. The answer might well be realism versus political theater.

The 2011 NASA/OSTP ban on bilaterally working with China was the brainchild of Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chair of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee until he retired last year. The two-sentence clause imposing the ban was inserted into the NASA appropriations bill. Referring to China as an “evil empire” in 1999, Congressman Wolf is a long and proud “Dragon Slayer.” As an evangelical Christian he was and continues to be particularly focused on Chinese human rights and freedom of religion issues. Linking those obviously legitimate concerns to Chinese-U.S. space relations, however, has proved problematic for several reasons.

In 2013, Bo Jiang, a Chinese national and contractor working on optics at NASA Langley, was arrested at the airport before leaving for China, on suspicion of being in possession of classified materials. Besides porn, nothing illegal was found on Bo’s computer. He pled guilty to violating NASA computer use rules, but was cleared of all espionage charges. Suspicion first fell on Bo after Rep. Wolf declared at a press conference that anonymous NASA employees had alerted him about security concerns. At the same press conference, Wolf called on (which equates to “directed” since he controlled their budget) NASA to “take down all public information for a security review, including the voluminous NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) that contains virtually the sum-total of NASA’s scientific studies, and begin a massive review of all foreign nationals at NASA… NTRS came back online with almost zero changes. NASA, highly technical administration that it is, employs and contracts a large number of foreigners, and the disruption was enormous.” Besides employing a high number of foreign nationals, NASA scientists also regularly work with scientists from other countries, including China.


Wolf’s scrutiny of NASA was such that  paranoia set in, resulting in a “better safe than sorry” attitude among NASA employees about avoiding Chinese. There was a joke that if a NASA employee was on a DC Metro car with an Asian, he or she better switch cars. But erring on the side of caution proved problematic as well. When NASA’s Ames Research Center excluded Chinese scientists from a conference and American scientists consequently boycotted the conference in protest, Wolf chastised Ames for applying the bilateral ban to a multilateral conference, and NASA was left to humbly apologize.

Beyond issues related to individuals are the even more-important strategic issues that flow from a ban on U.S.-China bilateral dialogue. It has always been in the best interests of the United States to use all tools of national power to achieve its space-related goals, as stated in the U.S. National Space Policy, National Security Strategy, and National Security Space Strategy. Wolf’s restrictions on space cooperation constrain U.S. options. The United States could learn about how the Chinese work – their decision-making processes, institutional policies and standard operating procedures. This is valuable information in accurately deciphering the intended use of dual-use space technology, long a weakness and so a vulnerability in U.S. analysis.

Though Wolf retired in 2014, the new House CJS chairman, Rep. John Culbertson (R-TX), has said he agrees with Wolf’s position. The final law that Wolf put in place, and which remains in effect (P.L. 113-235, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015), bans funding by NASA or OSTP 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 unless such activities are specifically authorized by law after the date of enactment of this Act.” Supporting an anti-China agenda accrues not insignificant domestic support among some voter constituencies. And so Congress continues to act as though a bilateral snub by the U.S. will somehow change Chinese policies, deny them technology, or perhaps just hurt their feelings.

It has repeatedly been demonstrated though that sanctions, denying a country “things” that it wants, only works when all countries possessing whatever the desired thing cooperate in denial. If the rationale for snubbing China is to deny it space-related technology, it should be considered that other space-faring nations do not share U.S. views toward China. Other Western countries have shown themselves eager to work with and sell to China, with restrictions and enforceable controls on dual-use technology, negating the effectiveness of U.S. actions. That leaves only defending the moral high ground – the U.S. as a democracy doesn’t work with communist authoritarian governments – as a rationale for the Congressional position.

Sometimes, however, realism isn’t pretty, as it fundamentally involves acting in your own best interests. And while the United States would like to always work with countries sharing its values, in pursuing those interests that has not always proven possible, witness Iraq under Saddam, Iran under the Shah, and numerous other examples. Further, as President Richard Nixon showed with China and Ronald Reagan demonstrated during his second term with the Soviet Union, diplomacy does not equate to appeasement, as seems currently to be the popular Washington beltway interpretation.

Space Environment

In space, the ultimate goal of all U.S. strategies is for the U.S. to benefit from a sustainable space environment. Risks to the space environment stem from congestion (the U.S. owns more 40 percent of the satellites in orbit), space debris, naturally occurring space objects, and debris potentially created by anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. In recognition of its inability to deal with the space debris issues on its own, the U.S. already works with China and 11 other countries on the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordinating Committee (IADC), which has done remarkable work at the scientific and technical level in identifying issues and suggesting mitigation approaches. Their suggestions are largely ignored, however, due to lack of trust at the political level. Building trust takes dialogue.

The rhetoric of space competition has been escalating rapidly. Chest thumping, accusations and curious lingo such as “offensive counterspace” from Congress and the Pentagon do little to build trust. Preventing that escalating rhetoric from evolving into military confrontation that would jeopardize U.S. interests is the job of the State Department. Therefore, it makes sense that State, with larger, strategic objectives beyond those of individual members of Congress or military services inherently needing threats to justify enhanced budget requests, would step in to fill the void created by the 2011 legislative action.

Frank Rose, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, will have a challenging task in identifying areas for civil space cooperation with China, given the dual-use nature of space technology and the domestic Kabuki accompanying Wolf’s enduring ban. But acquiescing to talk about civil space cooperation is likely the carrot required to get to what the U.S. really wants to talk about – space security.

Since its irresponsible high-altitude ASAT test in 2007, China has become “politically correct” when testing ASAT technology, and now says it is testing missile defense technology, like the U.S., Russia and India, given the similarities of the required capabilities. China’s July 2014 missile defense test has been of particular concern to the U.S., and perhaps convinced the State Department that it was time to step in and pursue the best interests of the United States.

Notably, the usual and most vocal critics of U.S.-China space cooperation have been largely silent, perhaps indicating that while unwilling to support the dialogue, the need is becoming recognized. The State Department has indicated that NASA and other space-related agencies will be invited to the dialogue, and it will be up to them to get the requisite clearances from Congress. Whether Congress grants these will be indicative.

The next meeting between the U.S. and China is scheduled for October 2015. It will take all of Frank Rose’s considerable talents – with China and domestic political communities – to move a space agenda forward. But if sustainability of the space environment is the ultimate goal, it is not one that can be pursued unilaterally, or without China.

Joan Johnson-Freese is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not represent the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College.