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China’s Space Program Suggests Decoupling Won’t Work Like the US Hopes

The U.S. has long frozen China out of space cooperation. That hasn’t stopped China from making substantial progress.

By Brantly Womack for
China’s Space Program Suggests Decoupling Won’t Work Like the US Hopes
Credit: Tim Peake/ ESA

China’s space program – a long-time victim of political distancing from NASA – is completing a trip to the moon to bring back lunar samples. As part of the Chang’e 5 mission, a lander gathered rocks from the surface of the moon and then transferred them to the orbiter, which plans to return to earth December 17. This is a first for China’s ambitious space program, though a modest one by American standards. On the same day the Chinese landed, NASA rather peevishly announced contracts for as little as one dollar for lunar soil to be collected by private space companies in the next few years, and a few days later it named the astronauts for future manned American lunar missions.

But though U.S. astronauts reached the moon in 1969, China is not 50 years behind in the space race. In 2019, it completed 33 successful orbital launches while the United States did 20. Next year it plans to launch the core unit of its own modular space station, to be finished by 2022 over the course of 10 missions. Further down the road, it has plans for Mars exploration and for a gigantic space-based solar power generator.

China’s progress in space has been achieved in spite of a complete decoupling by the United States. In contrast to NASA’s successful space collaboration with the Russians, the American agency has shunned China. Joint space missions between the U.S. and the Soviets began in 1975, when the two nations were Cold War enemies. The International Space Station (ISS), the pinnacle of this collaboration, was proposed in 1984 and became operational in 2000. But the United States kept China out of the ISS. Congress then drove the decoupling home in 2011 with a law forbidding any collaboration between NASA and any Chinese entity, even to the point of barring Chinese visitors from entering NASA facilities. And there can be no U.S. components in any satellite launched by China.

China’s space program is thus the perfect test case for current American discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of decoupling. Is it a good idea to minimize collaboration and to cut China off from high-tech inputs? Can the United States get its allies to cooperate? Can China be isolated? Can its progress be stopped?

The short answer is that attempts to isolate China are more likely to result in American self-isolation and the loss of collaborative opportunities. Clearly NASA has not kept China earth-bound. But China would rather not go it alone in space. It is building its space station modules to be compatible with the docking requirements of the ISS, just in case the American mood changes. Meanwhile, NASA’s space exploration is chronically underfunded. Cooperation with Russia has been essential to ISS operations, despite continuing political tensions. Similarly, China’s enthusiasm as a first-timer could have been coupled with American know-how as an old-timer.

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It is certainly the case that China benefits from access to American technological innovation as well as to its markets and capital. Forcing China to do without critical American inputs has caused severe crises in its high-tech industries. But reinventing the wheel is not as difficult as inventing it the first time. As Simon Kuznets, the guru of economic development, pointed out long ago, innovation produces needs as well as means. China has the need, and will find the way to re-engineer its American components. With decoupling, China loses time and gains an enemy, but neither is a game-changer.

What does the United States lose by decoupling? China is the world leader in terms of the scale and efficiency of goods production. The old saw that “China produces 80 percent of the quality for 60 percent of the price” is still mostly true, though both quality and price are inching upwards. A “made in USA” economy would become a boutique of expensive domestic substitutes, and its exports would price themselves out of competition. If, for example, the United States can’t keep Chinese furniture out of its own market except by shutting it out, then why would Belgium buy U.S. furniture? In space, American restrictions on satellite content are making other countries, including Europeans, go to China for their satellites as well as for the launch vehicles needed to get them into orbit. And to the extent that the United States becomes a self-centered boutique economy, its prestige and role as a global economic center will diminish. Thinking that America can close its eyes and China will go away is reminiscent of the famous London headline long ago: “Fog in Channel; Continent Isolated.”

The planned Chinese space station is a good metaphor for what is happening here on Earth. It was inconvenienced but not stopped by NASA’s decoupling – in fact, it was made necessary by decoupling. It is not a threat to the ISS, but the exclusivity of the ISS has created a rival. There is room out there for two space stations, but cooperation would be more effective, as it already is within the ISS itself.

Brantly Womack holds the C. K. Yen Chair at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He is the author of Asymmetry and International Relationships (Cambridge).