U.S.-China Space Ties Weighed

NASAhas asked the China National Space Administration (CNSA) to take part next weekin an invitation-only Exploration Strategy Workshop to be held in Washington, D.C.

Theconfab is seen by NASA as the first step in a series of activities planned for2006 that will focus on defining a global space exploration strategy forrobotic and human lunar exploration, including the role of the Moon as astepping stone to Mars and other destinations. This event will bring togetherrepresentatives from a broad range of communities to work in multidisciplinaryteams, exchanging ideas on the strategy for exploration.

Theworkshop is an outgrowth from President George W. Bush's visionary agenda unveiledin January 2004 of Moon, Mars, and beyond exploration goals that he tasked NASAto undertake.

"Consistentwith the Vision's mandate to pursue international cooperation, we are hosting13 international space agencies, including China's, next week at an explorationworkshop," said Melissa Mathews, NASA public affairs spokesperson for the spaceagency's Office of External Relations.

NASAchief, Mike Griffin, was invited to visit China earlier this month by the ChinaNational Space Administration, Mathews said, and NASA is considering theinvitation. "As for dates, there's nothing more specific than 'fall' to reportto you at this point," she told SPACE.com.

Regarding where things stand today in terms of NASA's cooperation with China, Mathews said: "Generally speaking, NASA is constrained in its ability to discuss new civilspace cooperation with China until China addresses issues of concern to the U.S. government. Our current involvement with China is limited and consists of such things as low-level Earth science exchanges of data.There is no human spaceflight-related cooperation under consideration at this time."

Cooperative agreements

Today, Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington, D.C. and is meeting with President George Bush in the White House Oval Office.

Asa prelude to President Hu's visit the United States and the People's Republicof China signed a protocol on April 18 that extends for five years a number ofbilateral science and technology cooperative agreements.

Theprotocol agreement was signed earlier this week by John Marburger, ScienceAdvisor to the President and Director of the White House Office of Science andTechnology Policy, and China's Minister of Science and Technology XuGuanhua. 

"Theextension enables the continuation of the ongoing exchange of scientific andtechnical knowledge, the pursuit of advanced and applied scientificand technical projects, and the augmentation of scientific and technical,"according to a U.S. State Department fact sheet. Areas identified for continued and potential future cooperation include:

  • Fisheries;
  • Emerging and infectious diseases (such as avian influenza, and HIV/AIDS);
  • Earth and atmospheric sciences;
  • Basic research in physics, chemistry, and agriculture;
  • A variety of energy-related areas;
  • Geology;
  • Health;
  • Civil industrial technology; and
  • Disaster research.

Roster of space projects

Whilehow many of these areas may benefit by increased U.S.-China space cooperationis unclear, China does have in the works an impressive roster of satelliteprojects.

LuoGe, ViceAdministrator, China National Space Administration (CNSA) noted at the recent 22nd National SpaceSymposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado his country in the coming five toeight years we will be launching about 100 satellites, includingmeteorological, Earth remote sensing, as well as constellations of Earthobserving and disaster mitigation spacecraft.

Luoalso spotlighted China's multi-step program for lunar exploration that is kickstarted next year by that country's first lunar orbiter mission By 2012, hesaid, China space planners will be landing a rover on the Moon surface. And in2017, the lunar exploration plans call for robotic lunar sample return.

Regardingthe opening of a window in U.S./China space cooperation, there are indications,slight they may be, of a potential--yet small--change in policy, said a leading China space watcher, Joan Johnson-Freese, Chair, Departmentof National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

"Iam cautiously optimistic, which is more optimistic than I've been in the past,"Johnson-Freese told SPACE.com in an earlier interview.

Security dilemma

U.S.-Chinaspace relations are a classic security dilemma, where two states are drawntoward conflict though neither really wants that, Johnson-Freeseexplained. The reasons are fairly straightforward and stronglyinfluenced by the technology involved, Johnson-Freese suggested.

"Specifically,there is no distinction between space technology for civil or military use,since 95 percent of space technology is dual-use, and further--andreally problematic--there is often little or no distinction betweenmilitary technology that is offensive or defensive in nature," Johnson-Freeseexplained. "So, fear of being exploited drives countries to viewactions of others in zero-sum terms."

Allthis is further exacerbated when there is a predisposition by one state to viewthe other as an adversary ... or even a "potential" adversary. Whilestrategically the U.S. talks about working with China, there are still othervoices that talk about China as a potential near-peer competitor, due to Taiwan, the growth of their military, resource competition, and other issues of alarm, Johnson-Freeseexplained. All that said, she added: "It is verylikely that the lens through which the U.S.--as the currently dominate spacepower--will view any expansion of Chinese space power will be a militaryone."

Securitydilemmas, Johnson-Freese remarked, are by their naturedifficult to deal with, but not impossible. A recent visit of the bi-partisanCongressional delegation to China and talks about potential space cooperationin areas like astronaut rescue and environmental monitoring, was a goodsign, she said.

However, achange of policy to include cooperative space activities is still a WhiteHouse call, Johnson-Freese said. A first stepon this path, she counseled, is simply understanding the Chinese better andallowing them to know us better through dialogue.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.