The Bush administration has suspended plans to develop space ventures with China, including joint exploration of the moon, in reaction to Beijing’s Jan. 11 test of an anti-satellite weapon that left orbiting debris threatening U.S. and foreign satellites.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman Jason Sharp said the weapon test undermined an agreement reached between President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao during an April summit.
“We believe China’s development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the constructive relationship that our presidents have outlined, including on civil space cooperation,” Mr. Sharp said.
He said there were “some initial discussions looking at where there were mutual interests where we could cooperate with the Chinese,” but there are no plans for future discussions. The two presidents had hoped to work on joint moon exploration and space-debris avoidance.
Bush administration officials said the suspension is meant to signal U.S. displeasure with the anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) test, as well as Beijing’s failure to provide an explanation for its space arms program.
“Clearly it makes it more difficult to go down the path of cooperation when they’re testing ASAT weapons,” one official said.
China fired a missile on Jan. 11 that released a nonexplosive warhead that destroyed a Chinese weather satellite 530 miles above the Earth by ramming it at high speed. Thousands of pieces of the destroyed satellite are in orbit and could damage or destroy some of the hundreds of U.S. and foreign satellites, U.S. officials said.
In Beijing yesterday, amid growing criticism over the ASAT test, a Chinese spokesman repeated Beijing’s past call for an agreement banning space weapons, a proposal that has been rejected by the Bush administration.
“Since other countries care about this question and are opposed to weaponization of space and an arms race in space, then let us join hands to realize this goal,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu when asked about U.S. and Japanese criticism of the test.
Both China and Russia in 2002 proposed adopting a treaty to ban deployment of space weapons during a session of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Until last year, U.S. space cooperation with China was curbed over China’s human rights abuses, including the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and national security worries in the Pentagon that space technology transfers would boost China’s military.
Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and the administration’s point man for space security policy, said yesterday that the space weapons test was a shock. It shows space is a “contested environment” and that “countries are developing capabilities to put at risk our assets for which we are dependent,” he said.
“This is a wake-up call,” Mr. Joseph said, noting that the United States needs “to ensure that we take the steps necessary to protect the space assets and the right to unfettered access to space.”
Also, the space arms test should be viewed in the context of China’s large-scale buildup of both strategic and conventional forces, not just their space weapons, he said.
Mr. Joseph said he is surprised by the muted international response to the test. “I think there has been very little outrage expressed,” he said. “Just imagine the international reaction if the U.S. had conducted such a test.”
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, California Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said China’s action poses a “major problem and something the world community needs to address.”
“We’re now stuck with hundreds of pieces of this Chinese satellite for a hundred years, and it’s having an impact on the entire global commons,” she said, noting that there needs to be “common norms and acceptable rules of behavior in space.”
Mrs. Tauscher called for engaging the Chinese and others in talks on space weapons, saying that while Beijing’s ASAT test was “irresponsible and unacceptable … sticking our heads in the sand isn’t going to make it better; it will only make it worse.”
U.S. intelligence officials said China has sought to obtain U.S. military space technology through espionage and other covert means but has been curbed by U.S. security measures.
“They’ve had trouble getting it through the back door so they decided to come in through the front,” a defense official said.
Among the technologies sought by the Chinese are dual-use civilian and military goods used in maneuvering spacecraft, including propulsion and battery know-how, which have applications for anti-satellite guidance systems, the defense official said.
Joint U.S.-China space cooperation was first raised last spring by China’s deputy space agency administrator, Luo Ge, shortly before the summit. He said China wanted to take part in the International Space Station, including making modifications on the orbiting station that would allow Chinese spacecraft to dock.
China launched its first manned spacecraft last year and has embarked on a major space program, that, unlike the NASA’s program, is run entirely by the Chinese military.