China celebrated another step forward in its 30-year plan for human spaceflight with the 16 June 2012 launch of the Shenzhou-9 mission carrying two men and a woman into orbit, the crew later docking with the Tiangong-1 space laboratory. While the US similarly celebrated a space achievement in May 2012 with the first docking of the privately-built Falcon 9/Dragon cargo vehicle and the International Space Station, the “hoopla” was far less. While hoopla admittedly isn’t everything, space achievements are a reflection of technological prowess, and hence strategic leadership. But the US and China need not be on a purely competitive trajectory regarding space or in general; there are opportunities as well.
Space policy is a subset of economic policy in many countries. European space efforts initially resulted from concern the US was developing space technology that would leave Europe behind. Space capabilities required technology, technology required industrialization, and industrialization meant economic growth. In the 1990’s countries like India and China similarly viewed space as part of development, especially in an “informationized” and globalized world. Most recently, countries from Nigeria to Brazil have expanded their space horizons as part of development.
The Chinese Shenzhou program is part of Project 921, a three-step plan approved in 1992, to assure China was not left so far behind that it couldn’t catch up. China has completed step one of the project, demonstration of human spaceflight capabilities. They are currently in the midst of step two, demonstrating advanced technologies. Step three is a large (about twenty tons, the size of Skylab) space station. A manned mission to the Moon is not included in Project 921, nor has such a mission been approved since.
In the US, the space program was part of the Cold War effort against the Soviet Union, not economic development. In fact, US prosperity allowed it to create two space programs: a military program providing the US military with capabilities that has subsequently given it an edge in hostilities from Basra to Abbottabad, and NASA, as the public face of the US space program. Even NASA’s Apollo program though was not really a space exploration program, but as much a part of the Cold War effort as any tank or plane. Consequently, that history means that US space policy is a subset of national security policy and foreign policy.
The key to understanding current US-China tensions regarding space is the largely dual-use nature of space technology, meaning the same technology is of value for both civilian and military purposes, and military technology may have both offensive and defensive capabilities. While countries are mostly aware of what space capabilities others possess, the intended use is ambiguous. Countries may develop space technology for development purposes, or for nefarious reasons, under the guise of peaceful uses. Additionally, China, like many countries, is rapidly developing its own military space capabilities, ostensibly for defensive purposes.
Chinese intentions in space are further complicated by the opaque nature of their decision-making processes and close-hold of information. When China blatantly and irresponsibly tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in 2007 and an international outcry for an explanation followed, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not issue a statement for almost a week.
From China’s perspective, US space policy is difficult to understand primarily due to its seeming irrationality. The Chinese understand partisanship. A Chinese analyst recently told me they knew to disregard anything said by US Presidential candidates as candidates play to domestic voters. But they don’t understand how there can be a presidential policy encouraging NASA to expand cooperative space programs, potentially to include China, and yet one individual in Congress can block that policy for reasons having little to do with space.
China also pays considerable attention to US expansion of cooperative military space efforts. The US held its first international space war game this year, including several NATO countries. These kinds of activities, added to a US “return to Asia” defense policy, heightens China’s inclination to interpret US space policies as hostile or threatening.
The sheer distance to space creates uncertainty regarding what is going on, especially when dual-use assets are involved. Ambiguity breeds speculation, and speculation can trigger dangerous security dilemmas. It is also an environment akin to the high seas where every country wants, needs and intends to protect their right of usage. Consequently, however, all space faring nations have a vested interest in maintaining the sustainability of the environment, and that perhaps presents the greatest opportunity for avoiding confrontation.
In January 2012 the US endorsed the idea of an International Space Code of Conduct. It would set out in a legally non-binding document what responsible spacefaring nations consider reasonable and useful guidelines for space activity, toward maintaining the sustainability of the space environment.
Talks are being held on the Code through the United Nations. The draft document produced evidences a painful effort of legal wordsmithing, diplomatic wrangling and national security protectionism. But the fact that countries are talking signals recognition that a free-for-all in space is in nobody’s best interest. Space debris that threatens satellites is only one issue that inherently must be dealt with cooperatively in the interest of sustainability.
If the US puts its best diplomatic efforts into making this Code of Conduct a reality, there will be tangible benefits in the area of space policy. Additionally, it will serve US-China relations more specifically, as an indication of US willingness to acknowledge China as a major spacefaring nation, perhaps thereby bolstering US-China relations.
The current legislative prohibition on US-China space cooperation is hard to rationalize. If one believes that the US and China should learn to work together on a cooperative basis in this globalized world, then space cooperation–with appropriate technology transfers controls – offers the US an opportunity to see into the opaque Chinese system. If one believes that China is a threat to the US, then the adage keep your friends close and your enemies closer seems to come into play.
China, however, might be reluctant to work with the US regardless of US policy. China’s space program is progressing well, and China has observed that the US is often a difficult and unpredictable partner to work with – just ask the International Space Station partners.
Finally, in terms of strategic leadership, China is not overtaking the US in space; but it is advancing. The US must advance as well.
The success of the ISS resupply by Falcon/Dragon represents a step forward in the new US approach to space, relying more on private enterprise. But this new approach is painful because it takes time. In the long run though it is the right path, as relying on government funding is not sustainable. The US must maintain a steady, supportable path to space and not give in to frustration and impatience – as that is the biggest danger to US strategic leadership in space.
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