from Asia Unbound

Shazeda Ahmed: Saving Face in U.S.-China Space Relations

October 24, 2013

The sun is captured over Earth's horizon by one of the Expedition 36 crew members aboard the International Space Station on May 21, 2013 (NASA/Courtesy Reuters).
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Shazeda Ahmed is an intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In early- to mid-October, NASA came under fire for allegations of prejudice against Chinese scientists. Prominent scientists in the United States and Chinese netizens harshly criticized what they understood as NASA’s choice to bar Chinese scientists from attending an upcoming conference on the Kepler space telescope. Instead, it emerged that the agency was simply complying with a Congressional ban on using federal funds to collaborate with “China or any Chinese-owned companies.” Proposed by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) in 2011, the ban was passed as a defense against espionage and theft of intellectual property, understandable concerns given past experience with China and the aggressive tactics of Chinese cyber hackers. Yet it quickly became apparent that the Kepler conference was not an appropriate target for the ban.

Just days after the public decision to ban Chinese participation, Charles Bolden, the administrator of NASA, announced that the ban was mistakenly applied to the Kepler conference by “mid-level managers” and has stated that Chinese contributors may now attend. In a letter to Bolden posted on his website, Wolf insists that NASA should not work with the Chinese government on joint research until the latter can be trusted to respect intellectual property and human rights. Both are important considerations. But science diplomacy should not be sacrificed entirely. While it is prudent for NASA to avoid direct ties to the China National Space Administration (CNSA), selective partnerships with individual Chinese scientists could provide opportunities for open dialogue as China’s space program advances. Much like the United States’s previous joint space efforts with Russia, initiation of this type of partnership on NASA’s part could set the tone for pursuing peaceful, mutually beneficial projects. Research such as that being presented at the Kepler conference, which is to cover planets outside of our solar system, is a fine starting point.

It is also important for Congress and NASA to understand the shifting dynamics in the world of international space research and exploration. Major funding and support from Beijing for its domestic space industry suggest that the CNSA could someday surpass its Russian and U.S. counterparts. China’s potential dominance in space within the next decade or two suggests that NASA must begin to strategically assess possibilities for cooperation, rather than exclude the United States from what are bound to be pivotal future developments in space exploration and technology. If the United States is shrewd about collaborative opportunities with the Chinese, then it may stand to secure access to crucial resources over the long term. For example, CNSA aims to construct a space station by 2023, three years after the International Space Station (ISS) will retire. Rather than incur the exorbitant costs of replacing the ISS, it may be wise for NASA to share use of these facilities. NASA has no current plans for further manned space missions, but China’s goal of sending out a lunar probe by the end of the year may eventually lead to lunar resource extraction, a costly enterprise from which both nations could profit. If the United States is not interested or willing to match Chinese levels of investment to maintain its lead in space research and exploration, then this type of cooperation will be particularly important.

NASA’s decision not to apply Congress’s ban to the Kepler conference reflects the space organization’s need to review carefully which research endeavors are worth sharing with China to ensure long-term gains. Applying the ban too broadly will create unnecessary discord between the U.S. government and scientific community, as well as give China further reason to doubt U.S. commitment to strengthening bilateral relations. Though Congress appears unlikely to eliminate the ban anytime soon, it should begin to review U.S. long-term space research and exploration needs and consider how U.S.-China cooperation might further U.S. interests in this critical arena.