Sunday, January 13, 2008

US-China Space Race Ahead

Congress Daily takes a look at concerns in Congress over China's space program:

A space race between the United States and China will emerge in the next five to 10 years and could jeopardize U.S. national security, a key House lawmaker said Friday.

Floridian Tom Feeney, ranking Republican on the Science and Technology Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, made the comment after the Congressional Research Service produced a report on China's space program last month.

The report concluded that the nations currently mistrust one another's space goals. The nervousness is partly due to a surprise anti-satellite weapons test that China executed last January. The test, which destroyed an inactive Chinese weather satellite, polluted the cosmos with debris that will endanger space structures owned by a couple dozen countries, including China, for years.

The report looks at the prospects for cooperation on space between the US and China, and the possibility of lowering costs and improving outcome. The clear and obvious problem however, is the potential transfer of sensitive technologies:

"I would be opposed to transferring any technology to the Chinese that could potentially be used against us," Feeney said. "Almost anything that can help them launch into space and control how a vehicle operates can be used against us."

The People's Liberation Army continues to play a role in both military and civilian space operations. Feeney added: "The stakes are enormous and the Chinese know it. They teach their generals that whoever dominates space dominates the world..."
The referenced CRS report is here. It's a fairly brief read and, typical of many CRS documents, gives the novice a quick overview. It implies that US unilateralism may have prompted China to test its anti-satellite weapon:
How was the decision made to conduct a test that would contradict Beijing’s publicly-held position on the peaceful use of outer space, and that would almost certainly incur international condemnation? Some speculate that the United States’ unilateral positions encouraged China to conduct the test to demonstrate that it could not be ignored. In particular, the U.S. National Space Policy issued in September 2006 declares that the United States would “deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests."

It also cites some possible ways to improve coordination with China, and test whether substantive cooperation may be possible, without risking transfer of sensitive technologies:
  • Information and data sharing. Confidence building measures (CBMs) such as information exchange on debris management, environmental and meteorological conditions, and navigation, are widely considered an effective first step in building trust in a sensitive relationship. NASA has done some of this with CNSA in the past, but more is possible.
  • Space policy dialogue. Another area of potential exchange could begin with “strategic communication,”an attempt for each side to more accurately understand the other’s views, concerns, and intentions. Dialogue on “rules of the road,” a “code of conduct,” or even select military issues could be included.
  • Joint activities. This type of cooperation is more complex and would probably require strong political commitments and confidence building measures in advance. Bi- and multi-lateral partnerships on the international space station, lunar missions, environmental observation, or solar system exploration are potential options. A joint U.S.-Soviet space docking exercise in 1975 achieved important technical and political breakthroughs during the Cold War.
I don't believe that the United States and China are fated to face off in a hostile or semi-hostile manner any time soon. I remain optimistic that the gradual opening of China to western idea will continue, and that as the country grows wealthier it will become more 'normal.'

That said, it seems to me that increased cooperation is a no-brainer, even if you have a very negative view of the PRC. In that case, it has to fall under the 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer' doctrine, right? Given the potential for conflict between the two nations, it makes sense to make every effort to understand them better.

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