3D rendering of cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 docking with Tianhe - the Core Module of China's Modular Space Station. (Image: Axel Monse via shutterstock.com)
Can the US start cooperating with China — in space?

An obscure decade-old law has allowed the new-cold war mindset to migrate to zero gravity.

On June 17, China successfully delivered a three man crew to its domestically built space station Tianhe. The station is scheduled to be fully operational by 2022 and rival the existing International Space Station in size and sophistication. The reason China is building its own station rather than working with international partners is due almost entirely to the United States and its efforts to shut China out of cooperation on space. 

The annual Department of Defense appropriations bill that Congress passed in 2011 included an amendment — proposed by Rep. Frank Wolf — that prohibited any bilateral cooperation between NASA and “China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized.” This amendment was justified by concerns over China’s utilization of dual use technology from its space program to enhance its military capability. The concern presented was that scientific and technological exchange with the Chinese National Space Agency, or CNSA, would somehow abet the theft of U.S. intellectual property.

The Wolf amendment was not a new policy but rather a codification of a long running effort by influential groups in the United States to exclude China from cooperation in space. The United States, seemingly without any strategic methodology, never invited China to participate in the International Space Station or any other NASA missions.

In 2019, the United States further inflamed the situation by establishing the Space Force as a new military branch, with a stated goal of “protect[ing] U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force.” The formal establishment of the Space Force marked a major shift in the U.S.mindset on space from one of deliberately civilian-led exploration to gradual militarization. 

This shift toward militarization and exclusion of China appears to be interrelated as many in the United States view China as an inherently hostile nation and space as yet another battlefield. U.S. efforts to exclude China from its space operation doesn’t appear to be slowing China’s rapidly growing space program, which is now being developed without any input or close monitoring from the United States. 

Since 2011, China has begun construction on a permanent space station, sent probes to Mars, and begun to foster a rapidly growing private space flight industry. Rather than acknowledging China’s right to a peaceful and robust space program, much of the conversation around the Chinese space program in the United States has focused on its secretive nature and potential military applications. These conversations in many ways mirror the original Sputnik scare of the 1950s. 

The CNSA has certainly not done itself any favors in gaining global trust. It operates under the auspices of the military and its key personnel are reportedly sequestered in well guarded research facilities. That said, the majority of the CNSA work is still scientific and engineering in nature, and efforts to treat it as an exclusively military organization removes any incentive for it to be more forthcoming or cooperative. 

As development of space increases, the need to facilitate even basic communication is extremely pressing. The issues with the Chinese Long March 5B rocket illustrate this. The rocket, though accomplishing its mission, has suffered from two uncontrolled orbits. The most recent of these was in May of 2021. The rocket debris, had it struck a populated area, would have risked causing major damage and loss of life. Fortunately the debris crashed in the Indian Ocean. Yet future launches might not be so lucky. 

In these cases the CNSA and NASA could greatly benefit from bilateral scientific and engineering exchanges. NASA after all has long experience with safely deorbiting spent stages and large objects. Currently though, such exchanges are forbidden by the Wolf amendment. Indeed, the poor wording of the Wolf amendment means that even though NASA is the only U.S. agency explicitly prohibited from bilateral communication, overzealous federal prosecutors have misused it to harass Chinese nationals working at universities. A recent prosecution of an ethnic Chinese faculty member at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville began under the auspices of the Wolf amendment. Only later did the case degenerate into a farce as federal agents attempted to turn the plaintiff into a spy.

Yet the collective challenges humankind faces in space will grow more pronounced in the coming years. New technologies and new economic viability is rapidly making space more accessible, opening the door for commercial development in low-Earth orbit and manned and unmanned exploration of the further reaches of the Solar system. The growing presence of private firms in space raises a number of questions both in terms of safety and legality. As it stands there are no comprehensive international treaties governing the ownership of resources and intellectual property in space. The United States has begun to rectify this with the Artemis accords which build on the previous Outer Space Treaty , but both of these accords are very broad and the more recent Artemis accord does not include China or Russia.

If the United States wants to ensure a smooth development of outer space over the coming decades it needs to remove barriers of communication between its primary space agency and the second largest space agency in the world. Beyond enabling scientific communication this will help facilitate the ability to recognize potential issues and put together the mundane agreements, similar to civil aviation and communication agreements, that will let space be a shared area of human endeavor.

The United States also must recognize that it is far more reliant on international cooperation than it would like to admit, and has benefited greatly from such cooperation. Until last year, the United States was completely reliant on international cooperation — sending astronauts to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz rockets — in order to maintain a manned space program at all. Russia was once a model for the benefits of international cooperation. The construction, consistent resupply, and rotation of crew to the ISS is the direct result of cooperation between the Russian Space Agency and NASA. It has allowed NASA to keep a permanent manned presence in orbit for 20 years and acquire massive reams of data that will someday enable missions deeper into the solar system and the development of privately held space stations. U.S. animosity toward Russia though has begun to erode this beneficial relationship. Russia has decided to build its own station rather than continue partnership with the United States and it has also signed a memorandum of understanding with China on a moon base.Meanwhile, China is likely to open its own space station to other nations.

There has been some progress. On cooperation, the Defense Department, which is not affected by the Wolf amendment as the amendment is specific to NASA, is reportedly communicating with China on tracking space debris, issuing warnings of junk threatening the other’s space based assets. Yet much more is needed. The United States should repeal the Wolf amendment recognizing it is a piece of self damaging short term legislation passed for domestic consumption rather than any well reasoned aspect of strategy.

Beyond the repeal the United States should reverse its current policy on China and invite it into bilateral and multilateral space exploration and engineering initiatives. NASA’s proposed Lunar gateway is an excellent opening, especially if a precondition for joining would be for China to sign onto a multilateral treaty that will help to establish a foundation for economic development and exploration of the moon.

China’s inclusion could be leveraged to heal divisions with Russia and bring it into the fold. The United States could also reframe Space Force’s mission to fill a role more akin to the Coast Guard, focused on traffic management, developing lifesaving and rescue techniques, and mitigating risk such as space debris — a service that is desperately needed and would greatly benefit from international cooperation.

The current U.S. mindset on space is that it’s another battlefield upon which to fight instead of a blank canvas upon which to write a new future. Animosity between the United States and China will continue, but cooperation in fields such as space can keep dialog open and gradually build trust. The United States should first and foremost try to live up to the ideals set out when NASA was first established in 1958, “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.”

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