With little fanfare beyond a State Department press release, the United States on Monday began bilateral discussions with China on civil space cooperation.
You would be forgiven for not thinking that’s remarkable, since the United States and China are the two biggest space players. Why wouldn’t they be talking at a high level about space debris, how to avoid satellite collisions, and ways to collaborate on space science or coordinate weather observations?
But in fact, it has been extraordinarily difficult to get this to happen and it deserves a bit of applause.
Barriers to U.S.-China talks on space
Part of the problem is that since 2011, the natural U.S. interlocutors on civil space issues, NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), have been banned by Congress from using federal money “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.” Additionally, NASA may not host official Chinese visitors at its facilities. This ban originated with and was championed by Representative Frank Wolf, who headed the House appropriations subcommittee which oversees the NASA and OSTP budgets.
While Representative Wolf has retired, these restrictions continue, and neither NASA nor OSTP may engage bilaterally with China unless specifically granted permission legislatively or unless they have certified that such discussions “pose no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications to China” nor will they be interacting with any official who the U.S. determines to have been involved in human rights violations.
This has predictably cast a chill on space scientists, accustomed as we are to free information exchange and international collaboration. It was an obstacle to official talks that seemed difficult to overcome even if both sides were ready and willing to proceed.
A way forward
However, earlier this year, the outcomes reported from the 2015 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the seventh of yearly meetings between high level U.S. State and Treasury officials and their Chinese counterparts, stated that regular space meetings would happen:
The United States and China decided to establish regular bilateral government-to-government consultations on civil space cooperation. The first U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue is to take place in China before the end of October. Separate from the Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue, the two sides also decided to have exchanges on space security matters under the framework of the U.S.-China Security Dialogue before the next meeting of the Security Dialogue.
This made clear that civil space and space security issues would remain separate, and perhaps this has made it easier to get off the ground. According to Xinhua, the US delegation was headed by Jonathan Margolis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and not by staff in the State Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, which would presumably handle the space security discussions. The Chinese host was Tian Yulong from the China National Space Administration. I believe that the Security Dialogue framework under which the space security discussions will take place are those Strategic Security Dialogues that are part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
We at UCS have been advocating for substantive discussions on space issues with China for years—both civil and security-related. So I have to say that I am delighted to hear about this week’s meeting, as well as that the second meeting is scheduled to happen in Washington in 2016.
As to where these discussions might go? My colleague Gregory Kulacki commented in this space two years ago about the vision China’s scientific establishment has in mind for its future in space science and technology.