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Is It Time To Work With China In Space?

By Keith Cowing
NASA Watch
June 6, 2018
Filed under , ,
Is It Time To Work With China In Space?

Keith’s note: China is getting ready to launch a new space station which, when complete, will be on par with Mir with many capabilities similar to those offered by the ISS. China is openly seeking governmental and commercial participation. Meanwhile they are about to land a rover on the far side of the Moon as part of a methodical plan to land humans there.
Meanwhile NASA is trying to rid itself of the ISS through various half-hearted efforts to commercialize this amazing resource that rely on smoke and mirrors and faith-based funding plans. NASA is also puffing itself up again for the third time in less than 20 years to #GoBackToTheMoon or something with budgets that do not come close to making such a thing possible. Oh by the way #JourneyToMars is still on the books.
One would think that the prudent thing would be to leverage our interests with those of China as we have done with Russia and many other nations around the world. But short-sighted legislation and targeted xenophobia currently prevents this.

I was working at NASA in the 1990s when we were tasked with planning to bring the former USSR/Russia into the space station program. Xenophobia abounded. Indeed, you can take everything that circulated back then about how awful the Russians were and just replace that with “China”. But we made it work and the ISS is a stunning physical manifestation of what nations can do when they elevate something like space exploration above petty politics.
Interestingly, every time the bad relationship between the U.S. and Russia gets worse there is no mention of altering U.S./Russian cooperation in space. Somehow NASA, Russia, and all of the other ISS partners have managed to construct a working relationship on Earth as well as in space that is able to function despite terrestrial political difficulties. Indeed some people have made a serious effort to nominate the ISS for the Nobel Peace Prize for this multi-decade peaceful international cooperative venture.
Why is space seen as a venture that seemingly transcends terrestrial politics – indeed, one where peaceful collaboration regularly prevails over less desirable behavior? There is a precedent: Antarctica.
A new NASA Administrator and an embryonic space policy being formulated by the National Space Council will have to deal with the issue of China. They have a plan and they are sticking to it with steely determination. Do we just pretend they are not there or do we look back at history’s successes and embrace China – and other nations – in the exploration and utilization of space? And for those xenophobes who throw up reasons not to engage with China – just use the word “Russia” instead and then ask yourself if you are being consistent.
The more all nations rely on a space infrastructure that is interlinked, cross-standardized, and inherently multi-national – with their own citizens living in orbit and elsewhere – one would think that the less likely it will be that one nation is going to try and disrupt that infrastructure.
Or we can just ignore China and sit back while they go and develop an extensive international relationship – without us.
China Is Seeking Users For Their New Space Station, earlier post
China Reminds Washington About Their Space Program, earlier post
Will Terrestrial Politics Soon Have An Offworld Impact? (Update), earlier post
The Curious Geopolitical Immunity of the International Space Station, earlier post

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.

14 responses to “Is It Time To Work With China In Space?”

  1. Eric says:

    Kieth, are you asking people to become civilized and get along with each other? What an outrageous request!

  2. Kirk Kittell says:

    “One would think that the prudent thing would be to leverage our
    interests with those of China as we have done with Russia and many other nations around the world. But short-sighted legislation and targeted xenophobia currently prevents this.”

    Good luck raising campaign money with a practical long-term strategic message like that.

  3. Daniel Woodard says:

    The economic ties between the US and China are already enormous. What possible benefit is there to excluding them from the ISS?

  4. Vladislaw says:

    “NASA is also puffing itself up again for the third time in less than 20 years to #GoBackToTheMoon “

    And with the recent poll saying only 13% favor a moon return, actually kind of surprising. trumps supporters generally tend to favor everything he suggests and he has made a couple back to the moon to stay statements.. so it would seem that less than half of his supporters support it..

    • Steve Pemberton says:

      Looking at it another way, 55% are in favor of a return to the Moon. 13% think it is a top priority, 42% think it is important but lower priority. The number of people who are actually against a return to the Moon is not clear from the survey but it would be somewhere in the 44% who either think it is not too important or should not be done.

  5. fcrary says:

    China also has a communications satellite on route to an Earth-Moon L2 halo orbit (launched on May 20th.) That’s the relay for their Chang’e 4 farside lander/rover due to be launched late this year.

  6. Michael Genest says:

    I agree 100% with your thoughts here. I remember having to do Shuttle mission planning in the early 90’s on DOD flights inside an EMI shielded room at JSC called System X just to ensure the ‘evil Russians’ couldn’t get a glimmer of intel on the mission or payload and then a heartbeat or two later we had Russians all over the place at JSC and we were ‘colluding’ with them on a daily basis to build the ISS and we’ve been successfully colluding every day since then. Cooperating with the Chinese in space is just one attitude adjustment away. And I’ll bet we can do it without compromising national security or ruining our economy. Although the Chinese do seem to be ALOT better at economics than the Russians…..hmmmm.

  7. Shaw_Bob says:

    China in space shouldn’t be ignored by the USA – or the world will pass the torch to China.

  8. HobartStinson says:


  9. Jonna31 says:

    Once again… no. Not not. Not ever.

    Exactly how many times do we *actually* have to go over this? The answer now is the same as it was a decade ago. The answer will be the same ten years from now. And changing the underlying causes of that answer has absolutely nothing to do with space.

    China has been spending years stealing Western technology in an attempt to catch up economically and militarily. They’ve used espionage. They’ve used demands on commercial firms working in their country. They’ve used state-backed enterprises buying up (or shares) of Western firms. It is a national strategy whose endpoint is to make China the premier technological power on Earth and use that to establish hegemony in Asia-Pacific and eventually displace the US in the international system.

    That is not my opinion. That is the opinion of the US Intelligence Community and US Department of Defense. This is happening. This is real.

    And yet year after yet we get this ongoing… I’m not even sure what it is at this point… thought I guess… that wouldn’t it be nice if we could all work together, cooperate in space and be friends.

    Yes it would be nice. But not in this lifetime.

    The US has spent the better part of 20 years of subscribing to the idea that engagement with China, in order to make it a “positive stakeholder” in global affairs, would ward off confrontation. It turned the other cheek on affront after affront, all to service this idea, that softballing China would lead to a better outcome down the line.

    And how exactly did that work out for us? It’s been a disaster of a policy. Superpowers don’t share. The United States and Soviet Union didn’t when they were rising. Why should China? China, naturally, wants it all. And America trying to do things differently has significantly narrowed each and every advantage we have as we head into this inevitable geopolitical confrontation.

    And now you people want to expand this to space. Yet gagain. Have you not been paying attention? China would love to cooperate with the US in space, so it can harvest any dual use technologies it could, or so it could outright clone technologies in an attempt to leapfrog us.

    There is not is not a space-based-cooperation principle, or scientific discovery worth that. That poll about space priorities show Americans are generally “Earth first”. Space policies must be in line with that. In this case, space policy must service national objectives, and the national policy of the United States now, rightly, is that the US is a strategic competitor, not a partner.

    The ban between cooperation is so hysterically in the US’s national interests precisely because of this. The US and China can cooperate, when China changes pretty much everything about their entire geopolitical strategy and approach to technological gains particularly.

    Until that day, how about a little less talk about cooperation at a Chinese space station, and a little more talk about sending more war ships to the South China Sea to ward off their illegal actions there. Because THAT is the reality we live in, not some nonsense (and it is nonsense) that we should be cooperating in space as some ridiculous “trust building exercise” while they militarize the region.

  10. Jonna31 says:

    Oh and one more thing. We worked with the Russians for years. We still do. We did to the point we intentionally made ourselves dependent on capability they provided.

    And how exactly has that worked out for us? Here we are watching years roll over, as we count down to the day we’re finally free of our dependence on Russia in space. Because of actions on Earth that Russia and Russia alone initiated, and a policy of confrontation that they began that has severely harmed American and Western Security.

    We let a country that was an adversary for 70 years in too close, too quickly, because we hoped that peaceful cooperation across many domains… an attempt to make them a productive stakeholder in a system we designed… would ward off a future confrontation. And 25 years later, that turned out to be an utter and complete failure.

    And now you people want a sequel with China? Is this some kind of joke?

    Russia was given chances it didn’t earn in the 1990s and early 2000s that Vladimir Putin took advantage of until he felt he had sufficiently rebuilt his powerbase to resume a policy of confrontation around 2013. All your years of extolling cooperating were burnt to the ground because it was all dependent on Russian foreign policy – that is to say, the policy position vis a vis America of Vladimir Putin – to remain as positive as yours. We were all fools to ever think that would be a thing.

    It is the same thing with China. The exact same. Over the last five years alone, our relations have turned sharply towards confrontation, and that is only likely to accelerate in years ahead. And it should, because the greviences between the US and China are significant, important, and must be worked out.

    I’m going to tell you exactly where this leads. It leads to Russia Situation 2.0 in the 2040s. America, because it wants to save a little bit of money, or some other silly reason decides to cooperate with China on something in space… let’;s say that space station of theirs. And then China, being much stronger in the 2040s relative to the US than it is today, decides to do something aggressive on Earth that the US finds unacceptable… like their own little analog of the US Invasion of Panama somewhere in Africa or East Asia. And relations, already chilly for years, go way South, much the same as Russian-US relations did after Crimea. And then we count the days and lament our dependency on whatever it is China does for us in space, and start counting the years again until we’re free.

    That is how this story ends. Because space plays zero role in reconciling Earthbound problems, and those Earthbound problems will always supercede space-based ambitions. We should be cooperating with countries in space who aren’t, you know, seeking to militarily or otherwise strategically challenge us and undermine our national security across nearly every domain.

    That’s why this thought process regarding how desirable cooperation with China in space is so insane. You’ve seen this movie with Russia. You know exactly how it ends. And you want to see a sequel? Are you people just hoping this doesn’t spectacularly blow up in our face, like it did with Russia? Or do you just not care and are putting political philosophy over national security challenges as defined by the Department of Defense? Because we can sit down and read their 2018 National Defense Strategy statements together. It’s quite clear.

    I’ll just put this simply. If forbidding cooperation with China in space so long as they are a national security threat means that we never step foot on Mars in my life time, so be it. Space is a secondary national priority, and I say that as a lover of space. We got in this position with Russia because we saw in Russia what we wanted to see, not what they really were the entire time. Let’s not do the same with China.

    Let’s not make the same cataclysmic mistake twice.

    • Daniel Woodard says:

      So how do you feel about Mr. Trump declaring [trade] war on Canada and inviting Russia to join the G-7?