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Can the US and China Find Common Ground in Space?

Can the US and China Find Common Ground in Space?

Thursday, 25 March, 2021 - 05:45

Last week’s contentious meeting between Chinese and US delegations in Alaska was entering its second hour when Mars entered the conversation. First mention was made by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who invoked the recent landing of the Perseverance rover as an example of a successful US collaboration with another power (in this case, Europe).

Yang Jiechi, the Communist Party’s foreign-affairs chief, who spent much of the meeting haranguing the US delegation for protocol breaches, democratic failures and insufficient respect, took notice. Concluding his fierce remarks, his voice loosened and he made an otherworldly offer:

“While the United States has talked about its cooperation to land on some other planet with the European side, well, China would welcome it if there is a will to carry out similar cooperation from the United States with us. I’ll stop here.”

It was a bold invitation — and one that President Joe Biden’s administration should accept. Granted, that’s highly unlikely. The US has long restricted such collaboration due to (reasonable) fears of Chinese espionage. But the cold-shoulder treatment is no longer serving American interests. It’s merely driving China to develop its own technologies and collaborations, especially with Russia. Rethinking this approach would not only help build trust between the two sides. It could create a model for the next era of space exploration.

China’s space program has had an independent streak from the start. Beginning in the 1950s, rifts with the US and the Soviet Union precluded collaboration, so China develop its own technologies, and launched its first rocket in 1970. By the mid-1980s, it was marketing launch services to satellite manufacturers worldwide. In 1990, the US granted China permission to launch an American satellite too. Over the next eight years, the US. licensed the export of 24 high-tech US-manufactured satellites for launch in China.

It wasn’t long, however, before congressional investigations, Justice Department probes, and intelligence estimates cast doubt on whether American space technologies were safe from Chinese espionage (disagreements linger over whether such assessments were correct). The last Chinese commercial launch of a US satellite was in 1998.

Over the next decade, efforts to resume a partnership of some kind failed repeatedly. The most glaring example was the US refusal to allow China to work on the International Space Station, even as other participants — including Russia — supported its inclusion. In 2011, Congress imposed broad restrictions on US-China cooperation in space, including requirements that any such deal be approved by both Congress and the FBI. In the years that followed, those restrictions were loosened just once, for an exchange of data between unmanned lunar missions.

In the meantime, China hasn’t sat idly. In fact, it has racked up a decade of notable accomplishments, including three robotic missions to the moon’s surface, a lunar sample return, the development of powerful new rockets, a Mars orbiter and a satellite-navigation system. It has also formed collaborations: It recently agreed to work with Russia on a lunar research base, and its own space station — set to launch later this year — will be available to countries excluded from the ISS.

Yet even as China seeks cooperation in space, the US seems to be isolating itself. The ISS will be decommissioned by the end of the decade, potentially leaving China and its partners as the only countries with a permanent presence in Earth orbit. And as the two powers outline different visions for new norms in space — for everything from resource extraction to managing potential conflicts — China’s collaborators could, in time, become a coalition in support of its approach.

That’s one reason the US should scrap its ban on working with China. With reasonable precautions in place, collaboration could help US policy makers and scientists better understand China’s opaque space program, encourage teamwork at a time when relations are otherwise fraying, and induce the Chinese to use US technology platforms instead of developing their own. There is a precedent: At the height of the Cold War, the US worked with the Soviet Union to dock two spacecraft in Earth orbit — an effort that would serve as a model for future cooperation, including on the ISS.

As a start, the US should at least respond positively to China’s overture. First steps can be modest ones, including data sharing and cooperation on climate initiatives. As trust grows, more ambitious missions could be explored, perhaps including China’s wish to be a part of America’s advanced Martian exploration program. Creating that trust won’t be as easy as aiming barbs across a negotiating table. But then, as astronauts like to say, space is hard.


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