The U.S. and China Need to Start Cooperating in Space

The U.S. and China Need to Start Cooperating in Space
Ju Zhenhua/Xinhua via AP
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Outer space, once a technological “battleground” between competing Cold War superpowers, is today an increasingly vibrant area of economic activity, scientific research, and exploration. Even among peer competitors, the incentive for cooperative interaction in space, rather than adversarial competition, is strategically compelling: working together builds mutual trust and confidence, prevents misunderstandings, and enables partners to collectively support each other in achieving common goals. Pursuing cooperation today is important, given the heightened value of space to a broader number of stakeholders than was the case in decades past.

However, space is not free of political or military threats. Some point to potential challenges from competitors, especially China, that loom on the horizon. The oft-suggested approach to handling these threats is to bolster our space defenses and strengthen norm-building with current partners and allies. Otherwise a sound approach, it misses a key point: countries don’t establish and maintain leadership and set norms by excluding others; rather, they do so by involving them, coopting them, and establishing meaningful relationships. Yet at present, the United States’ space program is legally prohibited from cooperating with China. Any sound space strategy to deal with the Chinese, even and especially if they appear potentially combative, will involve the United States looking for small steps to foster bilateral collaboration. Giant leaps aren’t needed to foster meaningful relations and patterns of interaction.

The current exclusion policy stems from several legitimate concerns, of course. Space cooperation often involves transfers of sensitive technologies and information with “dual-use” military application. There is precedent to be wary of China “stealing” and possibly weaponizing whatever the United States brings to the table; especially troublesome, given the close ties between all sectors of China’s space program and its military. Beyond this, can the Chinese offer to a partnership anything that the United States cannot? There is little value in a collaborative project if the American taxpayer is left footing much of its costs, with NASA carrying out most of the legwork. Meanwhile, some see China’s human rights record as a reason not to work with them – and banning cooperation in space as a method to compel a change in their practices.

These are valid fears, but a cooperative venture with China need not be expensive, high-profile, or entail significant transfers of US technology and expertise. Joint ventures, such as monitoring climate change, studying space weather, or tracking near-Earth asteroids, could be done through non-sensitive means such as sharing already-collected data and analysis. More tangible cooperation could be as simple as flying scientific instruments on each other’s satellites – an option that, because of the generally benign nature of these instruments, minimizes the security risk of “dual-use” technology sharing. In addition to the scientific benefits they’d provide, these partnerships would help create meaningful patterns of interaction that lower barriers to transparent information exchange – and may pave the way to future cooperation on higher-profile efforts.

There is utility in the practice of exchanging information. Space cooperation allows partners to learn and acclimate to each other’s decision-making processes, institutional cultures, and standard operating procedures. This gradually builds trust in each other’s intentions, or at the very least eases misconceptions about how the other thinks. This is vital in the case of China, which is seen by many in the national security community as the United States’ greatest threat in space. By helping policymakers and security leaders decipher China’s intended use of dual-use space technologies, cooperation in any form would limit American suspicion and possible miscalculation as China uses these technologies. Cooperation between our two countries would also signal, and over time establish, growing mutual confidence. Earning this perspective of presumed good intention would serve to far better mitigate military escalation in space during times of tension on Earth than what the current status quo offers.

Ultimately, policymakers need to look at the reality of the situation: in space, China isn’t going away. They are and will be as integral an actor in setting outer space’s future norms as our current-day allies. During the Cold War, despite stark differences in ideology and values and regardless of their active development of anti-satellite weapons, the United States pursued space cooperation with the Soviet Union because of this recognition. Today, the United States should do the same with China. Cooperation can be preconditioned on transparency and tempered in expectations. It can be as simple as sharing data and establishing space agency-to-space agency dialogue. It needn’t begin with a giant leap, but rather small steps. For a peaceful coexistence with China in space, small steps are far better than none at all.

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