Thursday, December 11, 2008


The incoming Obama administration has some tough choices to make with respect to how it will engage China in space. Cooperation with China in space will involve substantial risks, which must be identified and debated from the start.

Although President-elect Barack Obama stresses the need to keep U.S. space assets free from threats of disruption, he has not shown any inclination to somehow confront China or call attention to any hostile intent on the part of China in space as well.

He opposes stationing weapons in space and the development of anti-satellite weapons, and he believes the United States “must show leadership by engaging other nations in discussions of how best to stop the slow slide towards a new battlefield.” Finally he is a supporter of new technologies and capabilities that allow U.S. space assets to avoid attacks and recover from them quickly.

Discussions with China are one thing, whereas a formal tie in space with China is something else entirely. Eric Hagt, China program director at the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C., for example, considers it highly unlikely that the United States and China will work together on space programs of any substance.

“The larger political and security relationship, not to mention a change in legislation impacting on U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations [ITAR] controls and sensitive export laws would need to be in place before actual cooperation can occur,” says Mr. Hagt.

The preliminary dialogue that has already started between NASA and its Chinese counterparts will continue and perhaps increase in priority, according to John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University and former director of the university’s Space Policy Institute.

“But our space relationship with China is at a very early stage, and we will need to cultivate mutual understanding and trust for it to develop into a significant partnership. With respect to national security space, I think it is up to China to demonstrate that it will not continue the kind of developments that lead to the 2007 ASAT test,” says Mr. Logsdon.

The incoming Obama administration would be ill-advised to downplay the significance of China’s ASAT threat. Some, including Bates Gill and Martin Kleiber at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writing in Foreign Affairs in May 2007, cite the possibility the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may well have conducted the 2007 ASAT test without Beijing’s authorization. Others brand any talk of rogue military space operations in China as completely false and inaccurate. But it is clear the PLA can easily exploit the geopolitical edge ASAT technology provides.

“At present, the PLA has judged that the possession of proficient ASAT technologies could deter the U.S. from entering into a conflict over Taiwan,” wrote Eric Sayers, a national security research assistant at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in the October issue of the Armed Forces Journal.

Complicating any attempts to foster increased transparency is a fog of miscommunication and even subtle linguistic obstacles. Joan Johnson-Freese, chairwoman of the National Security Decision-Making Department at the U.S. Naval War College, closely monitors the U.S.-China relationship in space. She is aware some Chinese delegates at recent space conferences are trying to convey their discomfort with any use of the word “transparency” because in Mandarin that suggests revealing information in ways that could be associated with espionage.

“Requesting clarity of intent might work better. While some lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese has been cultural and intentional, if phrasing our requests differently gets better results, we should try it,” says Ms. Johnson-Freese.

In addition to all of these national security concerns, U.S. satellite companies are fed up with ITAR, which blocks them from accessing the low-cost satellite launch vehicles China operates, among other things.

According to Rosanna Sattler, a partner with Boston-based Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP and 2008 chairwoman of the 33-member Space Enterprise Council of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, her firm’s space law practice group receives many complaints from primary contractors as well as from subcontractors and suppliers concerning ITAR.

“The export licensing process is lengthy, unpredictable, and inefficient,” says the Space Foundation in a white paper titled, “ITAR and the U.S. Space Industry” issued in September. “ITAR restricts the ability of U.S. firms to compete because foreign companies do not operate under equal restrictions. Technology remains on the United States Munitions List, even when it is commercially available in other countries, because lists of critical U.S. military technologies are seldom updated.”

For the incoming Obama administration, engaging China in space, and dealing with increasingly irate, anti-ITAR satellite companies at home will require a delicate balancing act.

The new team in the White House advocates change. However, they are no doubt aware that in space, and here on Earth, forging a new relationship can often be a painfully slow process.

Peter J. Brown is a satellite technology writer from Maine. His commentaries on China’s activities in space appear in Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online (

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