Confrontation or cooperation: US-China space relations

Illustration of China’s proposed space station. As China builds up its human spaceflight capabilities, the US should welcome opportunities for cooperation on a return to the Moon. (credit: CNSA)

Landing on the Moon in 1969 was one of the greatest achievements in human history. This accomplishment was the result of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, the United States endeavors to go to the Moon again.

This time, the United States should go to the Moon not based on competition but on cooperation. China’s space capabilities are improving rapidly and its space presence is expanding. Collaboration with China can bring financial and diplomatic benefit. Last December, the Trump Administration declared its intent to go back to the Moon and go beyond. To achieve this goal, international cooperation is necessary. To achieve this goal, the United States should travel to the Moon with China as a new partner.

While the United States has built trust and cooperation with many countries in space, so far it has not worked with China. The US space station program was originally designed in the context of Cold War. Eventually, the United States invited Russia to the International Space Station and deepened international cooperation in space. On the other hand, in 2011, a federal law prohibited NASA from working with China for national security reasons.

This prohibition should be eliminated and the United States should collaborate with China. Cooperation should proceed step by step. Even during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated in space. The United States can find ways to work with China. As a first step, the United States should admit China to participate in the International Space Station.

The US human spaceflight program requires a great amount of money, and cooperation with China can contribute to reducing US costs. This February, the Trump Administration presented NASA’s budget request with a renewed emphasis on human spaceflight. Yet, in the long term, NASA’s budget will likely not significantly increase. It will be difficult to go back to the Moon if funding levels remain flat. China also aims to go to the Moon. If the United States works with China in the International Space Station program and other human spaceflight programs, they can share the financial burden. The United States can reduce its costs and accomplish its goal with less expenditure.

Suspicion can escalate confrontation, but trust can avoid an arms race. Last December, the US National Security Strategy classified China as “revisionist.” There are concerns that conflicts between the United States and China are inevitable in the near future. To avoid conflicts, increasing cooperation is beneficial for both countries. In fact, the US and Chinese governments already have a space dialogue. Taking a step to operational cooperation in space will be a good start to building more trust.

This cooperation benefits not only both countries but the whole of international space society. Nowadays, there are many problems in space policy: space debris, weaponization of space, and controversial international space law. To resolve these issues, international cooperation is essential. As the United States and China share more common interests in space, it will become easier for them to address international issues together.

There are security concerns that China would steal US space technology and develop its own capabilities. But this planned collaboration is in civil, not military, space operations. The United States would limit the exchange so as not to leak its advanced technology. Additionally, even if China keeps building its own space station after its participation in the ISS, its own station can be used to support the ISS. China has already developed its own space technology. Cooperation would not be a unilateral relationship, but one of mutual benefit.

It’s been 45 years since the United States last visited the Moon. Last time, the United States was alone, but since then many countries have improved their space technology. This time, the United States should lead the international space society and travel to the Moon and beyond together, with China as a new partner.