GRIFFIN & VAN CLEAVE: Working with China opens door to espionage

Cooperating in space: Time for a timeout

It was an awkward moment, to say the least. Testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee, President Obama’s science adviser, John P. Holdren, was describing the Obama administration’s ongoing discussions with China to develop joint space projects.

Problem is, a law Mr. Obama had signed just weeks before prohibits NASA or Mr. Holdren’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from engaging in any bilateral activities with China.

When challenged (“Do you understand the meaning of the word ‘prohibits’?”) Mr. Holdren asserted on advice of counsel that the president was construing the law as consistent with his inherent constitutional authority to conduct negotiations (lawyer-speak for “You can’t tell us what is off limits”).

Mr. Holdren may pay the price (literally) for this novel interpretation. Now Frank R. Wolf, chairman of the subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies is threatening to force compliance with the law by cutting OSTP’s budget when his subcommittee meets Thursday to mark up next year’s appropriations bill.

Leaving aside the “who’s-in-charge” issue, the larger question is: Is this a good law or a bad law?

As the former head of NASA and the first to visit China, and the former head of U.S. counterintelligence, we might be expected to reach different answers. Yet we are both in the realist camp. There are two schools of thought about space cooperation with China, each with its own self-fulfilling prophecy:

c The Chinese are determined to steal our technology and get ahead militarily at our expense, so any cooperative space projects are a lose-lose for us. (The national security realists.)

c Chinese espionage will succeed no matter what we do, so we might as well get what we can out of cooperative projects. (The science and technology “realists.”)

We think both of these views are overly simplistic.

As America prepares to box up the last space shuttle for museum display, China is on a trajectory of explosive growth in space - under a highly disciplined veil of secrecy. We have precious few insights into what the Chinese are doing or why. Based on our experience with the Soviets during the Cold War and with Russia since, we think carefully managed cooperative space projects - not putting partners into the critical path, just selective joint efforts on interesting things - could be the single best window into Chinese plans and capabilities in space.

At the same time, the Chinese have a far-reaching, multilayered program for illicit technology acquisition from the United States. They are keenly interested in space technology, in which America is still the world’s unquestioned leader. Just ask 30-year spy Dongfan Chung (Orange County, Calif.) or Shu Quan-Sheng (Newport News, Va.) or Lian Yang (Seattle), now serving time for passing inter alia space-shuttle communication technologies, space-launch cryogenic fuels data and satellite semiconductor devices, respectively. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We want to open channels that allow the possibility that in the long run, a potential adversary can become a partner and ally. Joint space projects characterized by transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit can be an excellent way to begin. Is it possible to manage the inherent risks while pursuing our larger goals?

If we had an effective counterintelligence capability to identify and disrupt Chinese collection activities, this would be an easier call. Timely tripwires that signal when the other side is stepping across the line would enable us to manage the risk of close interaction and gain the advantage of rare insights into China’s space program. Unfortunately, U.S. efforts to build such a strategic capability against foreign intelligence threats have fallen by the wayside, while Chinese espionage continues to grow.

We believe the United States is paying an opportunity cost by walking away from possible joint space projects with China, but without a more robust counterintelligence capability, we stand to lose more than we would gain. Nor does it make sense to venture into cooperative activities that may contribute to China’s military modernization or global strategic ambitions.

The statutory prohibition against bilateral space projects wisely puts the brakes on a downhill rush to engage with the Chinese. In the absence of a larger strategy guiding policy and programs on China, it is unclear whether cooperative space projects would advance or hinder U.S. interests. The Obama administration should use this timeout to take stock and then return to Congress with a coherent approach to space cooperation with China that is more than a raw assertion of the president’s authority to conduct foreign affairs as he may please.

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