The View From Here

Time for more confidence in U.S.-China space cooperation

Written by: developer

I was in Beijing recently when it was announced that President Obama will meet with President Xi in China later this month. I’m not sure it is part of a larger pattern, but, it is true that I was also in Beijing the first time an Obama-Xi meeting was announced. That particular meeting was notable, in that cooperation in space by the two countries was specifically on the agenda — a rare thing when heads of states meet. There were some feel-good words about space collaboration reported out of that meeting, but, as we all know, very little actually happened.

Or, so it would seem.

Actually, very quietly, the two countries have recently engaged in two tracks of diplomatic negotiations on space cooperation, and these two tracks cover an astonishing range of issues. While I’m normally a fan of brevity, I’m going to resist the urge to paraphrase, and use the official language that the two sides have agreed to in summarizing their most recent meeting:

Space Security:   The United States and China welcomed the holding of the first Space Security Exchange (SSE) on May 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. During the SSE, which was created under the auspices of the U.S.-China Security Dialogue, the two sides conducted an in-depth exchange of views on a wide range of bilateral and multilateral space security issues, including orbital debris. The two sides believe that, as two leading space faring nations and permanent members of the UN Security Council, the United States and China have shared interests, objectives and responsibilities to safeguard space security and stability. The two sides are committed to working toward the same objective through intensified bilateral and multilateral cooperation to promote international space security; expanding consensus and exploring appropriate confidence building measures in this regard; and enhancing mutual trust. The two sides decided to hold the second round of the Space Security Exchange before the end of 2016.

Civil Space:   The United States and China reaffirmed their commitment to advance civil space cooperation. The two sides held the first Civil Space Dialogue in September 2015; exchanged a list of priorities for Earth and space science activities; planned an expert workshop on orbital debris mitigation and satellite collision avoidance to ensure safe and sustainable outer space activities; and decided to hold a second Civil Space Dialogue in the United States before the end of October 2016. In addition, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the China Meteorological Administration decided during their 19th Joint Working Group Meeting in August 2015 to pursue cooperation on space weather monitoring plans, forecasting and services to address space weather events.

While not as dramatic as the announcement of a joint program to put astronauts on Mars, these negotiations are important stepping stones to greater things, and are pieces of a larger pattern of official and unofficial/informal engagement between the two space powers that portend greater things in the future.

Direct, bilateral negotiations between two countries are a key to diplomatic progress. Very often, when the two sides are like-minded, results can be obtained quickly. We saw this recently in the case of U.S.-Korea bilateral meetings, where a treaty on civil space collaboration was reached and signed in just two years. Very often, things take longer, like a similar agreement with Japan that has been in legislative limbo for more than six years. Multi-lateral discussions can go on for what seems an interminable period, as we have seen in the United Nations with current measures on space conduct that have been beaten with hammer and tongs by dozens of nations for more than a dozen years.

In diplomatic parlance, the Space Foundation role is strictly informal/unofficial. We are happy to consult and advise. As a non-governmental organization, we can bridge gaps in communication between two sides, and consult freely with each in promoting transparency and mutual understanding. We began this journey with our colleagues in China shortly after the launch of Shenzhou 7 in 2008. We have journeyed to China and led delegations of U.S. executives on visits to manufacturing facilities and launch and operations centers, and we have hosted delegations from China on like visits to the United States. We’ve participated in UN and other meetings held in China, and met with our Chinese colleagues in other venues around the world.

The most important outcome of this activity, in my view, is the creation and sustainment of both institutional and personal relationships. Our principal partnerships in the region are with the China Society of Astronautics and the China Space Foundation. We’ve worked under a Memorandum of Agreement with CSA since 2010, and were delighted to be able to sign a new MOU in August, agreeing to a robust set of mutual programs and activities ranging from data sharing to STEM education programs, and joint activities in the U.S. and China. We met with the Center for National Security & Strategic Studies, a think tank of China’s National University of Defense Technologies, signing a contract under which CNSSS will publish a Chinese-language version of the Space Foundation’s signature, authoritative guide to global space activity, The Space Report. We were also able to identify a number of potential STEM education initiatives for the future.

Along the way we met with leadership of the China National Space Agency, and old friends from the China Manned Space Organization, and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the principal industrial contractor for the majority of China’s space programs. Together, we were able to identify a number of opportunities in the coming 24 months, to work unofficially in ways that can support the official efforts of our countries to forge a more productive relationship in space.

We’ll be seeing some exciting space developments from China in the coming months, including the launch of the Tiangong-2 space lab, the launch of a Shenzhou mission to dock with Tiangong-2 and perform a 30-day science mission and the launch of the country’s new, heavy-lift launcher, Longmarch 5. China’s new spaceport on Hainan Island recently conducted its first launch, a Longmarch 7, and, while we were in Beijing, CNSA revealed the design of its Mars lander/rover spacecraft, which will launch to the Red Planet in 2020.

There’s a lot going on in China’s space program. That’s clear, and the announcements will keep on coming. What’s less obvious, to most, is that progress is also being made in the official space dialogue between the two nations. While it’s important to manage our expectations, it’s also important to embrace optimism and candor as we move forward.

The View from Here is that, as the space programs of both nations continue to move forward, so should the confidence of both nations grow toward working with one another.

This article is part of Space Watch: September 2016 (Volume: 15, Issue: 9).