In early May when the US government was scrambling to pass a budget, a provision was slipped into the NASA appropriations bill that while counter to Obama Administration policy of expanded space cooperation, was not as important as getting a continuing resolution passed and so allowed to slide through. Section 1340 of NASA’s budget prohibited NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from spending funds to “develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.” It also prohibited the hosting of “official Chinese visitors” at any NASA facility. Clearly, a comprehensive ban on US-China space cooperation was intended. Just as clearly, ban supporters are under the impression that Chinese space officials are anxiously banging on the proverbial US door, waiting and hoping for the opportunity to work with the United States – which just isn’t the case.
China has energetically and broadly moved out on their own in space, and based on watching on-going US political kabuki dances about its future space plans, and seeing how difficult and tenuous it can be for other countries to partner with the US – on the International Space Station (ISS), for example – most Chinese space officials consider working with the United States as a potential liability to their own already-underway plans. In fact, many countries consider that they can afford only so much US friendship, though Congress continues to act as though the US is the only game in town if countries want to develop a robust space program.
Rarely do US attempts at isolating countries – ally or competitor - succeed without unexpected, and negative, consequences. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 restricted data sharing from the Manhattan Project with allies including Britain, resulting in a significant wartime rift and leading to Britain developing their own bomb. After the infamous Cox Commission Report in 1999 which investigated charges of theft and illegal satellite technology transfer to China, the US attempted to block dual-use satellite technology from sale or launch there. As a result, European space industries that had been niche providers developed much broader capabilities so they could circumvent US prohibitions. US companies have lost business and the globalization of technology marches on. For many years, Chinese politicians considered there would be geostrategic benefits to be derived from being a partner on the ISS, symbolic of the “international family of spacefaring nations.” The United States stiff-arming them from involvement is a factor behind China now developing its own space station.
So what does a legislative prohibition such as this achieve? It is pile-on evidence that the United States, or at least some of the Congress, is oblivious to the state of the world and the US position in it. That is not a declaration of US “decline,” another popular though misplaced cry frequently heard. It simply says that, realistically, the gap between the US and countries such as China (and India, and Brazil) that were once “developing” and are now increasingly “developed” world has shrunk – which is to the benefit of the US if one believes that security risks largely originate in underdeveloped areas not connected to the globalized world. It will likely be read internationally with a certain degree of bemusement; Congress now declaring who NASA can talk to and who it can’t, as though snubbing China will either result in a change in the Chinese domestic policies (such as human rights) of concern to Congressional supporters of the ban, or inhibit its space plans.
While the ban only covered expenditures through September 30, 2011, it could be an issue in Fiscal Year 2012 as well since Representative Frank Wolk (R-VA), a fierce critic of China and chair of the House spending committee that oversees NASA and several science agencies, and other committee Republicans, are clearly focused on the issue. Tetchy exchanges between ban supporters and presidential science advisor John Holdren occurred at subsequent Congressional hearings on the FY 2012 budget when Holdren stated that the ban did not apply to the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy. Wolf and company pushed back against anything that would provide a loophole for presidential discretion in working with China, tacitly threatening future NASA funding if the intent of their ban were to be evaded.
After a hiatus following the Cox Commission Report, small gestures of space outreach between the US and China began with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s 2006 trip to China during the Bush Administration, though the overall US policy toward China on cooperation remained largely negative. While the Obama Administration has been much more generally positive about cooperation, including with China, there have been no US-China cooperative programs put on the table by either side to consider, nor are any apparently in the works. Since 2006, US-China space cooperation has been treading water at best, so why the need now to make this bold, and pointless, political statement is unclear. Perhaps supporters were just waving a “pay attention to us” flag at NASA regarding any potential future plans, though if that was the case there were certainly other ways to send that message while still considering the broader aspects of US strategic communication.
What is clear, however, is that other countries have no such compunction as the US about working with China – indeed many are anxious to have the opportunity to work with a country they see as more open to partnerships, rather than the sub-contractor status some ISS “partners” have felt the US afforded them. There may be little need to bar the door to countries wanting to work with the US on space activities, as there may soon be fewer and fewer countries knocking. Congress and the Administration working together to refocus the US space program, including realistic cooperation, would go further to maintain US space leadership than pointless isolation gestures.
Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.