A Future for U.S.-China Space Cooperation?


Dec 13, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Space News on December 13, 2004.

Human space flight was born as a “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, carried out on one of the bloodless battlefields of the Cold War. But while humans continue to travel into space, the nature of international space activities has gradually changed from competition to cooperation. Once bitter rivals, America and Russia now share the costs and risks of space flight.

As a result of the successful space flight of Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei in 2003, China has joined the United States and Russia as one of only three nations capable of human space flights based on their own capabilities. Does China's space achievement portend a new round of competition — or does it offer an opportunity for U.S.-China space cooperation? The Dec. 2 meeting between NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and Chinese National Space Agency Administrator Sun Laiyan in Washington launched an important effort by the U.S. and China to explore whether the advantages of working together in space — as the United States and Russia do today — outweigh the disadvantages.

In addition to launching its first human into space, China has approved plans for robotic lunar exploration that could lay the foundation for human missions and hopes to eventually orbit a permanent manned space station. China's emergent role in human space flight coincides with the announcement last January of NASA's goal to return to the moon and lay the foundation for human exploration of Mars.

During the post-Apollo era, U.S. space exploration programs have been burdened by unrealistic expectations and inadequate funding that sometimes led to canceled or scaled-back programs. Transporting humans into space for extended periods remains expensive, risky and technically demanding. Cooperation with China on human space flight provides opportunities for collaboration that could reduce the cost of major missions such as returning to the moon and long-duration flights to Mars.

The Chinese would expect to benefit from cooperation with the more advanced U.S. space program, gaining increased prestige and taking a great leap forward by getting access to U.S. knowledge, experience and technology. However, because most space technologies and skills are dual-use in nature — meaning they also can be used to develop space systems for military use — America wants to be sure China doesn't use space cooperation as a tool to strengthen its military might.

China has strong military reasons to become a major space power and many Chinese writings on space argue that China should develop space weapons in addition to militarizing space. These technologies could be used against U.S. forces if an armed conflict arises over Taiwan.

China could go a long way in addressing American concerns by increasing the transparency of its space program to reduce uncertainties over its intentions in space. A big step in this direction would be for China to remove its human space flight program from military control and establish a civil organization with direct responsibility for human space flight that would be better suited to working with NASA.

The U.S. experience with the Soviet Union, and later with Russia, offer some insights on the promise and challenges of international space cooperation. Nearly three decades ago the two countries proceeded with the Apollo-Soyuz docking mission despite Cold War tensions. In recent years, the United States has benefited from its cooperation with Russia in preparing for, constructing and operating the international space station. Cooperation has not been easy, but it has been essential for making progress in human space activities, particularly since the Columbia shuttle accident.

While the United States may have apprehensions about partnering with China in space, other nations do not. China is becoming an attractive partner for Europe and Russia, which are less inhibited in selling dual-use technologies to China. European nations are already partnering with China on significant space ventures, including the Galileo satellite navigation project. Cooperation with Russia or Europe could provide China with much of the same technologies that the U.S. hopes to prevent China from obtaining.

Chinese cooperation on major space efforts without U.S. involvement could threaten to erode the U.S. leadership position as the world's top space power. As with all areas of international relations, the United States must decide the extent it wants to proceed on its own path or collaborate with other countries to achieve common goals.

The financial and technical challenges of returning to the moon make a compelling argument for U.S.-Chinese cooperation. But if Washington sees benefits in exploring the opportunities for collaboration with Beijing, it must also identify ways of minimizing potential risks to U.S. national security. Beginning a dialogue that emphasizes greater transparency in U.S.-China civil space activities would be a good start.

John C. Baker and Kevin Pollpeter are researchers with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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