U.S.-Soviet Model Urged For U.S.-China Space Cooperation

By Frank Morring, Jr.
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Most of NASA's partners on the ISS support a larger role for China there, and do not have limits on their ability to cooperate with Beijing's space establishment. And even with U.S. opposition, China is not completely barred. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which detects and counts subatomic particles arriving at its perch on the station from deep space, includes large magnets produced in China, notes Stimson panelist Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation.

Weeden suggests space weather monitoring could be a “good place to start” an active program of U.S.-Chinese civil space cooperation, since it would continue lower-level, multi-national cooperation already under way and be mutually beneficial.

Addressing the threat China poses to U.S. national security, James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School noted that testing by China and the U.S. of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons has raised issues of space security unseen since the orbital nuclear testing of 1958-62. Moltz compared the U.S.-Chinese relationship in space to the one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “Fortunately, this path was eventually averted,” he says. “We signed the ABM Treaty. We signed the SALT I agreement that banned interference with national technical means. We moved forward with space science cooperation, and we flew the Apollo-Soyuz mission.”

Just as the U.S. is unwilling to cooperate with China in space, the People's Liberation Army that controls Chinese human spaceflight also has also been reluctant to engage in substantive dialogue on the subject, Moltz says. Secrecy surrounding the U.S. X-37B reusable spaceplane has raised Chinese suspicions, he says, just as Chinese industrial espionage raise U.S. concerns. Nonetheless, China has displayed some wiggle room in semi-official discussions about space weaponry, including a possible ban on ground-based ASAT tests, Moltz says, and there is a chance deeper discussions could pay off.

Possible areas of fruitful military-to-military talks include space situational awareness “because of our shared interest in reducing space debris,” and providing greater transparency into the systems that provide it.

“We don't have a crisis kind of hotline where we can engage them in case of very high-risk short-notice events,” he says, adding that the bilateral agenda should include work toward non-interference with reconnaissance and signals-intelligence spacecraft, which served well in the U.S.-Soviet relationship.

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