The Win-Lose of US-China Space Cooperation (China Wins; US Loses)

NASA image ISS International Space Station China US flags posted on AMericaSpace
Would a partnership with China be beneficial to U.S. space efforts? Given recent alleged high-profile hacks of U.S. installations, the country’s poor human rights record, and a litany of other issues, the answer is probably “Bu.” Image Credit: NASA

Ten months after his first term inauguration, President Obama met with President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China, conducting what the White House termed,“ in-depth, productive, and candid discussions on U.S.-China relations and other issues of mutual interest.”

One of the many topics of discussion was space exploration. After the meeting, the White House issued a statement that included the following:

“The United States and China look forward to expanding discussions on space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity, and mutual benefit.”

In the intervening four years, it is interesting to note that the White House has not issued any further statement on this topic (check the White House web site). Nevertheless, the initial communiqué has unleashed an occasional flurry of speculation regarding the merits and advisability of potential joint space programs with China.

So what’s behind the American interest in such joint space operations? What’s in it for the United States? Simply put, is it a good idea or a bad idea?

On the surface it would appear that the proposed space initiative is part of a broader effort begun during the Nixon Administration (“Only Nixon could go to China”) and continued to varying degrees to open and enhance dialogue with the communist PRC government—the purpose of which to defuse tensions and reduce the possibility of conflict, armed or otherwise.

Let’s keep in mind that there is an inherent, fundamental struggle between an open, democratic society and a closed, communist society. History is littered with the remains of closed, tyrannical societies that could not exist over the long term surrounded by open, free societies. Some lost military conflicts that they initiated to extend geopolitical domination; others lost to popular uprisings, in spite of vigorous and often ruthless suppression. The experience of the Soviet Union proved that a planned economy and a suppressed population couldn’t compete with a free-market economy and a citizenry motivated by economic liberty. While peaceful coexistence may be possible in the short term, open and free societies must remain vigilant against the inevitable threat of oppressive regimes.

There is, of course, precedent for joint space initiatives with a communist government. With the U.S. and USSR locked in a cold war struggle and the nuclear Sword of Damocles looming overhead, the 1972 agreement for an Apollo Soyuz Test Project was seen as a low-risk means to reduce cold war tensions. It culminated in a successful July 17, 1975, docking of a U.S. Apollo and USSR Soyuz space capsules. The American and Soviet teams conducted joint experiments and exchanged gifts before separating 44 hours later. That initiative led to other joint cooperation and activities that eventually led to wider cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS).

Why was it low-risk? Because with its national security implications, the U.S. had already won the space race, thanks to a motivated American scientific community and the successful Apollo landings on the Moon. Apollo-Soyuz was a small baby-step toward geopolitical and military détente, a move that was clearly in the best interest of the United States. It relaxed the nuclear trigger fingers just a bit. In addition, the ability to dock with Soviet spacecraft gave NASA an important backup in case something went wrong with its own missions. The benefits outweighed the risks.

Fast forward to 2013.

What does the U.S. have to gain this time by cooperating in space exploration with the last remaining major communist nation? Do the benefits again outweigh the risks?

This time, I believe that the answer is no, for two fundamental sets of reasons: one related directly to space exploration itself, and the second economic.

Let’s start with space-related rationale.

What’s the one thing that NASA needs most to re-launch deep space exploration? Obviously, it’s a heavy-lift rocket. That’s where the Chinese can help, right?

On the contrary. Let’s look at the facts.

First, let’s compare orbital launchers either active or under development.

Consider the characteristic called LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) payload mass, expressed in kg. NASA’s heavy lift rocket under development, the SLS, is projected to deliver 130,000 kg. The Falcon Heavy, also under development, is projected at 53,000 kg. By comparison, the currently operational Atlas V is rated at about 19,000 kg, the Delta IV at 23,000 kg, and the regular Falcon 9 at about 10,000 kg.

Let’s look at the Chinese rocket families. The current Long March 4 is rated at a mere 12,000 kg.  The Long March 5, under development, is only projected to deliver 25,000 kg.

Incidentally, the gigantic American Saturn V, which delivered the Apollo astronauts to the Moon and which last flew in 1973, delivered 118,000 kg. LEO payload mass.

So don’t count on the Chinese to help with a heavy lift rocket.

What about Chinese space exploration technology and expertise? Recent media reports seem to suggest that the Chinese are hot on the heels of NASA. Really?

It was only a year ago that the Chinese achieved their first successful manual space docking exercise. Last month they had their longest crewed time in space … 15 days. And while U.S. rockets reach the ISS within eight hours of launch, it takes Chinese rockets two days to reach their own orbiting station. I’m sure that there are many very smart Chinese scientists and engineers, but they have a very, very long way to go to reach NASA’s space proficiency.

Further, there is a troublesome aspect of how the PRC have achieved what they have. According to a recent 92-page Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013, “China relies on foreign technology, acquisition of key dual-use components, and focused indigenous research and development (R&D) to advance military modernization.  The Chinese utilize a large, well-organized network to facilitate collection of sensitive information and export-controlled technology from U.S. defense sources. This network of government-affiliated companies and research institutes often enables the PLA to access sensitive and dual-use technologies under the guise of civilian research and development. In the case of key national security technologies, controlled equipment, and other materials not readily obtainable through commercial means or academia, China has utilized its intelligence services and employed other illicit approaches that involve violations of U.S. laws and export controls.”  In other words, if they can’t get advanced technology legally, the Chinese often steal it.

The report even cited at least four such high-profile thefts during 2012 alone.

So what’s in joint U.S.-Chinese space exploration for America? Certainly not space exploration knowledge.

On the other hand, despite the relative infancy of China’s space program, some Western observers are worried about the potential strategic military direction of the PRC’s space program:

  • According to same Defense Department report mentioned above, “China is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.”
  • China’s irresponsible 2007 anti-satellite weapon test exponentially increased the amount of space debris in orbit, which is dangerous to operating satellites. Space debris is now recognized by all countries (and militaries) as a threat to space assets.
  • According to Dean Cheng of the Asian Studies Center, “The Chinese have not separated their civilian and military space programs. Instead, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is intimately involved in Chinese space efforts. Unlike the Kennedy Space Center in Florida or the Johnson Space Center in Houston, China’s space facilities are all manned and operated by elements of the PLA. Similarly, Chinese reporting about their human spaceflight program (the Shenzhou and Tiangong programs) and lunar exploration missions (the Chang’e program) all include senior PLA officers as ‘commanders’ of the effort. Space cooperation with China will almost inevitably mean cooperation with China’s military.”
  • Further, according to Cheng, “In this light, any technology that is transferred to China, openly or as a result of espionage, is likely to benefit the PLA. This is exacerbated by the lack of transparency into China’s space program. Similarly, why China decided to shoot down a weather satellite in 2007, and who was involved in that decision, remains a mystery.”

The PRC is apparently getting more financially serious about their space initiative. Although spending in prior years is unknown, a spokeswoman for China’s manned space missions said last year the program would cost a total of almost 40 billion yuan (U.S. $6.27 billion). That’s about 14 percent more than NASA’s 2014 budget for space exploration activities (minus the ISS support) of  $5.5 billion.

In addition to the serious national security concerns regarding any joint U.S.-China space initiatives, there are also economic ones.  And, even worse, they are related to the largest single threat to American economic prosperity, the National Debt.

According to the U.S. Department of Treasury (July 11, 2013), the national debt is a whopping and nearly incomprehensible  $16.9 trillion. To make it more understandable, the national debt is often expressed as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Economists generally consider anything over 100 percent untenable in the long term, dangerous, and reckless.

Today, the U.S. national debt as a percent of GDP is a skyrocketing 107 percent. Just a year ago it was 103 percent. When George W. Bush left office in 2009, it was roughly 85 percent.

The current level of national debt (107 percent of GDP) puts the United States in the company of countries who are struggling with financial stability, and worse than the more stable Canadian and European economies:

  • Greece             181 percent
  • Italy                 131 percent
  • Guatemala      109 percent
  • United States  107 percent
  • Spain                  105 percent
  • Euro-area         103 percent
  • France                93 percent
  • Canada               86 percent
  • Germany           85 percent
  • Australia           26 percent

Why is this bad?  The reasons are numerous and complex, but just to name a few (data from the Congressional Budget Office): 1) the annual interest payments on the national debt are roughly $350 billion, the sixth largest federal budget item (remember, the 2014 NASA budget in total is only about $17 billion); 2) More than 15 percent of all revenue collected by the federal government goes to pay the interest on the national debt; 3) Over the next ten years the interest payments are projected to be $5 trillion!

Who is the largest single holder of U.S. debt? China, of course. In April 2013, the U.S. debt held by China stood at nearly $1.3 trillion (Japan is next at about $1.1 trillion, followed by Brazil at $ 0.25 trillion).

Does the label on just about everything seem to say ”Made in China”? This year the U.S. trade deficit with China will be roughly $320 billion. The consequence is even greater and steadily increasing debt held by China.

The implications of the huge debt held by China include:

  • Owning U.S. Treasury notes helps China’s economy grow by keeping its currency weaker than the dollar. This keeps products exported from China cheaper than U.S. products, creating jobs for the Chinese people (Economist Kimberly Amadeo).
  • China’s position as America’s largest banker gives it some political leverage. Every now and then, China threatens to sell part of its debt holdings. It knows that, if it did so, U.S. interest rates would rise, which would slow U.S economic growth.

Is it prudent, therefore, for the U.S. to enter into joint space venture, a venture that has clear strategic military implications, with a nation that has a polar opposite view of the relative rights of the individual versus the state, the nature of government, and human rights?

Is it prudent to enter into an agreement with a partner that has a clearly inferior level of expertise to offer in return?

Is it prudent to share strategic technology with a country that is likely to be our most significant military threat in the future, and a country likely to apply advanced technologies to military applications?

Is it prudent to allow the U.S. to be somehow dependent for a strategic capability on a country that already has a potentially dangerous amount of economic leverage?

Probably not.

I, therefore, respectfully disagree with U.S.-China space partnership advocates such as Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and author of numerous books on space. She recently noted, “ If one believes that China is inherently a threat to the United States, then the adage ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ comes to mind. The script for U.S.-China relations—and space relations in particular—is constantly evolving. The United States can influence the direction, but only if we engage and persuade the Chinese to engage with us. It’s one way of preventing a scenario of a galactic Wild West in which China has become the world’s leader in space.”

What comes to my mind is “Peace through Strength.” Let’s not give away our strategic strengths to our most likely adversaries.


This commentary expresses the views of the author and does not necessarily represent those of AmericaSpace.

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One Comment

  1. You make some interesting points, if taken from ‘the old school’ logic. What does the ‘new school’ say? Interdependency is key! China knows that were they to create a financial collapse in the U.S. by diddling with international economics, then the whole ‘stack of cards’ might fall and along with it China’s economy and what it has gained in recent years. Remember.. they are dependent on a strong U.S. economy in a proprioceptive relationship.

    As far as joint U.S./China space efforts are concerned.. it is wise to ‘take it slowly’, but important to come to an early agreement over the proliferation of ‘space junk’, nuclear weapons and other efforts to militarizing space.

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