Space may be miles above us, but how it is being used — and by whom — is becoming increasingly important here on Earth. As of now, the United States leads the world in space exploration and exploitation, but China is determined to narrow the gap. Beijing has set its sights on becoming a major power in space, and in the next two decades it could surpass veterans in the field such as Russia, perhaps even someday rivaling the United States itself.
It may come as little surprise, then, that Washington and Beijing rarely consider each other partners in space. Though not for lack of trying on China's part, U.S. leaders are suspicious of Beijing's intentions, particularly since the Chinese space program remains shrouded in secrecy. China's propensity for stealing technology is only added cause for concern in Washington, as is the Chinese army's interest in using civil and commercial advances in space for military gain.
In fact, in some ways the United States' current competition with China is not unlike its Cold War-era space race with the Soviet Union. Today's contest, however, is unfolding in a profoundly different atmosphere. Space is no longer a theater reserved for the world's militaries, and as the skies become more crowded, the costs of an accidental confrontation are rising. At a time when many civil space programs are struggling to stretch their shrinking budgets to cover growing expenses, most countries can no longer afford to pursue their lofty ambitions in space on their own. The United States and China are no exception, and despite their mutual distrust, they may have no choice but to work together to achieve some of their common goals in space.
A History of U.S. Unease
For decades, the United States has watched China's burgeoning space program with growing apprehension. Washington's fears initially did not stop it from allowing U.S. companies to use Chinese launch systems to put satellites into orbit. After a string of failures in the mid-1990s, however, the United States began to distance itself from its Chinese competitor.
Yet even then, Washington continued to play an important role in shaping Beijing's progress in space. The most disastrous failure — the 1996 explosion of a U.S. satellite piggybacking on the maiden flight of the Chinese-built Long March 3B rocket — prompted insurance companies to request an investigation led by Western engineers. They determined that a faulty guidance system in the rocket caused the blast, a discovery the U.S. Department of Commerce passed along to China. After all, the Long March 3B's debut was important to Beijing, since it was designed to place payloads into geostationary orbit (a capability commonly used in communications satellites).
That said, the rocket's guidance technology can be used for another purpose as well: to lead weapons, including ballistic missiles, to their targets. In the wake of the investigation, many charged the team with inadvertently helping China to improve its military guidance systems — an allegation that, if true, would mean that the team had violated the U.S. Arms Export Control Act of 1976. (The act requires the U.S. State Department to sign off on international transfers of technology or information with military applications.) Following a congressional review of the case, the United States began classifying the bulk of satellite technologies — regardless of their intended use — under the U.S. Munitions List, subjecting them to the export controls listed under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
For better or worse, the move revolutionized the development and commercialization of space. Not only did virtually all collaboration between the United States and China in the field cease, but space industries outside the United States also began to flourish. Global producers of spacecraft and their parts, hoping to wean themselves off U.S. technology and go "ITAR-free," began to buy components from suppliers elsewhere. Meanwhile, Washington's fears of U.S. technology falling into Chinese hands were magnified when it discovered that a vital navigational chip was missing from the wreckage of the satellite Beijing turned over to the United States after the Long March 3B's explosion.
Washington's worries have lingered ever since, in spite of the belief held by many of its foreign partners that cooperation with China may be well worth the risk. China's ample resources could provide a much-needed cash infusion to the world's civil and commercial space programs, which are having a hard time meeting the ever-expanding price of operating in space. Moreover, few countries consider China a military adversary to the extent that the United States does. Several of Washington's European allies, for instance, have lobbied to include China in the International Space Station, an idea the United States has steadfastly opposed.
Hoping to isolate China's space program even further, Congress barred NASA in April 2011 from working with Chinese citizens linked to government enterprises. And though the United States loosened its regulations on exports of satellites and their parts in 2014, it continued to bar U.S. companies from exporting those goods to China. (The only other countries included in the ban were North Korea and several state sponsors of terrorism.)
China's Space Strategy Evolves
This hawkish stance, which is particularly common among outspoken members of the Republican Party, is hardly shocking. Challenging the United States, both militarily and in space, is a stated mission of China. Beijing has made no secret of its vision to become a global military, economic and technological leader, or of its intention to use space as a means to that end. In fact, many of China's strategic goals can be met only if it closes the gap between itself and the United States in space — especially by integrating space-based systems into its military platforms.
The structure of the Chinese space sector will no doubt be a boon to Beijing as it pursues its military objectives. Much of the industry, notorious for its ambiguous and opaque organization, overlaps with different segments of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA regulates many aspects of the Chinese space sector, oversees space launches, tracks and monitors satellites, and contributes heavily to space research and development. Of course, the PLA is not the only state organ involved in the industry, and the blurry divides between private and public, or civil and military, often work to Beijing's advantage. The Beidou navigational system, for example, will certainly be used in ways that have nothing to do with the Chinese military, though China's primary motive for developing it is to free its military from relying on foreign technology.
Given its strategic interest in space, the Chinese government will not be eager to cede its control over the industry. The deregulation and partial privatization that have become common in space sectors across the West, including the United States, probably will not be mirrored in China anytime soon, nor are the ties between the Chinese military and space industry likely to be severed. Nevertheless, as President Xi Jinping tries to transform China into a scientific and technological pioneer in its own right, the civil and commercial aspects of the country's space program will become important stepping-stones toward that goal, as well as great sources of national pride. Likewise, as China's economy continues to develop and mature, its sensory and telecommunications capabilities will become ever more vital to that growth. Water scarcity, urban congestion, environmental decline and constraints in agricultural productivity loom on China's horizon, all of which will make the collection of data from space invaluable to Chinese policymakers.
The rise of China's civil and private space industries will shape Beijing's policies abroad as well. China hopes to someday use its space sector as a foundation upon which to build relationships with other countries that do not have easy access to space. (China has already used a similar strategy in the developing world in areas such as agriculture.) For example, Beijing plans to launch the Beidou system in states that are participating in its One Belt, One Road initiative. China has also invited other countries to conduct research on its planned space station.
Beijing's quest for collaboration will do little to ease Washington's misgivings about the Chinese space program. The fact remains that the United States and China are fierce geopolitical rivals, and Beijing will continue to mold its space industry with an eye toward its military aspirations. Aware of this, Washington will undoubtedly keep restricting the sale or transfer of most space-related technologies to China, regardless of the damage it will do to the U.S. space sector as China turns to other companies and contractors around the world.
A Cold Shoulder, Not a Cold War
Of course, this does not mean the United States will be willing or able to completely wall itself off from China on space-related matters, as it once did with the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, cooperation in space between Washington and Moscow was nearly nonexistent, thanks to the deep enmity and distrust that arose between them as each raced to build up its weaponry. Once the Soviet Union fell, however, the military components of its space program were left in shambles. Fearing the Soviets' technology might fall into the wrong hands, the United States kept a close eye on the fledgling Russian state and sought to work more closely with its astronauts and scientists — collaboration that still exists on several levels today.
The United States' relationship with China may be frosty at times, but it is no Cold War. And in the current environment, going it alone in space is no longer feasible. NASA's budget has been diminishing for some time, and in order for it to achieve its aims, the organization has been forced to look to its counterparts abroad for help. As China's capabilities grow, eventually outstripping the capabilities of its competitors in Europe and Russia, NASA may not be able to avoid partnering with it for much longer. The same could be true of private U.S. space firms, which might up the pressure on Washington to permit NASA to work with China, whether directly or indirectly through joint projects.
Meanwhile, as the number of countries and companies with access to space has skyrocketed, a global effort to address certain shared challenges in space will make sequestering China more difficult. Monitoring and tracking space debris — objects floating in orbit that can cause significant damage to spacecraft and satellites — has become an international concern, and one in which the United States has taken a keen interest. But Washington cannot safeguard its satellites from such debris (or tackle other international problems in space) without Beijing's help, especially since China is poised to become the second-largest satellite operator within the next 20 years. Moreover, as space becomes a more common area that any nation can use, diplomatic solutions to new problems that arise will have to include the field's two most important players.
Crafting space policy is getting more complicated as the lines between commercial, civil and military space programs become less well-defined. Complicating matters, space-related technologies regularly have both commercial and military applications. Neither the United States nor China can afford to ignore what progress in space might mean for each other's military capabilities. But it also becoming clear that neither country can achieve its mission in space without the other's help.