The U.S. and China — two of the world’s most powerful spacefaring nations — aren’t likely to combine their efforts anytime soon. Despite some small steps in the right direction — with last year’s bilateral talks and a Chinese experiment bound for the International Space Station (under an arrangement with Houston-based Nanoracks, not NASA) — sustained and serious U.S.-China space cooperation seems unlikely, if not outright impossible.

Indeed, we have seen more U.S.-China space cooperation in Hollywood movies than we have in the real world.

Independence Day: Resurgence, which opened in the U.S. and China in late June, features U.S. and Chinese spacefighter pilots serving side by side — and all it took was an alien invasion

The Martian, the Oscar-nominated film starring Matt Damon as stranded NASA astronaut Mark Watney, clearly aims at a higher level of realism. NASA warmly embraced this Red Planet survival tale, even though the sticklers quibbled with the science in this work of fiction. For those of us interested in space policy, it was the easy and amicable exchange of resources between the U.S. and China that particularly stood out.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, Watney’s rescue wouldn’t have been possible without the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) offering NASA the use of its brand-new (not to mention previously classified) heavy-lift booster .

The Martian is set in the 2030s, so perhaps we are to believe that things have changed, but as U.S. law currently stands NASA would almost certainly require congressional approval to take advantage of the CNSA’s offer of assistance. For the last several years, the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee has wielded its budget clout to prohibit NASA from cooperating with China. U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) is proving to be just as big a China hawk as his predecessor, Virginia’s Frank Wolf. “The Chinese space program is owned lock, stock and barrel by the People’s Liberation Army,” Culberson said upon taking up Wolf ’s gavel last year. “It’s really important that we keep the Red Chinese out of our space program.”

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and U.S. President Richard Nixon toast during Nixon’s February 1972 trip to China. Credit: Nixon library

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and U.S. President Richard Nixon toast during Nixon’s February 1972 trip to China. Credit: Nixon library

China’s offer to launch a U.S. rescue craft would also likely see opposition from t he Pent a gon and the St ate Department, both of which have expressed serious concern over Chinese intentions in outer space and the risks of technology transfer. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which the State Department oversees, would also be a major hurdle to the NASA-CNSA cooperation depicted in The Martian. The U.S. maintains an arms embargo against China, and under ITAR regulations, any dual-use space technology is controlled on the United States Munitions List, requiring special authorization for export. While President Obama did make attempts to get the State Department to relax the regulations, his efforts were rebuffed in 2014 on grounds of national security. Under these conditions cooperation with China would be politically costly. Indeed, not pursuing cooperation with China seems to be the obvious choice to many, including prominent and well-placed lawmakers, military officers and civilian officials. In the wake of the highly visible technology demonstrations China has conducted, it is difficult to think of or remember the relationship being any other way.

However, cooperation with China in space was once a persistent part of U.S. space policy. During my time at the Kluge Centre in the Library of Congress, I have tracked the development of U.S.-China space relations back to the late 1950s. I have found that during the latter half of the 20th Century, China has been perceived by U.S. policymakers as both a partner and a threat to the U.S. in space, often simultaneously.

U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, and the subsequent signing of the Shanghai Communique, was built in part on the shared experience of a Soviet threat. Deng Xiao Ping, then vice premier, built on this by continuing to communicate Chinese fears about the Soviets both before and during the Carter administration.

U.S. policy makers seem to have taken this on board, and by the late 1970s (in the run up to the start of normalization efforts) the State Department reminded Carter of the 44 Soviet divisions which were stationed on the Sino-Soviet border. China and the U.S. therefore found a shared interest in limiting Soviet influence — and in U.S. policy terms this meant the possibility of strengthening China in order to achieve this goal.

High-level talks between then-U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and the post-Mao Chinese leadership began in 1977. As part of the plan to normalize the relationship, Carter decided to send a science and technology delegation to China, telling his science adviser: “I do not want you to go as Santa Claus. Be sure exchanges are equitable.” A National Security Council memo early in the process frames the proposal as building on the 1972 Shanghai Communique, saying that “this cooperation would be an important building block for the wide-ranging cooperation which we believe is as inevitable as it is highly desirable.” However, Carter did not intend to proceed without a consensus among more than a dozen agencies and departments, including the State Department, the Department of Defense (DoD), the CIA and NASA. By Oct. 13, 1978 a consensus had been forged, and the plan went into motion.

It is worth noting that the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) were still in place, and the first iteration of ITAR had been introduced in 1976. Any cooperation with China in space had to take place within this framework. The cooperation that followed relied on giving China exemptions to these regulations.

Space was a high-profile component of the exchange package, most notably Chinese participation in Landsat, but also the agreement in principal for more general cooperation in remote sensing, hosting of Chinese science on American systems and U.S. provision of launch services to China. Landsat’s moderate-resolution imagery had some limited military applications for China, but it dovetailed well with American attempts to aid China in agricultural matters.

wireCooperation with China in space matters was certainly not seen as risk-free. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor from 1977-1981, expressed concern on unintended technology transfer associated with the Landsat deal, but still directed the deal to go ahead, albeit in a manner which would minimize risks to national security. During a visit to China in 1980, then-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown explained to Deng Xiaoping that China and the USSR were to be treated differently under U.S. technology transfer policy, but that weapons technology would still be withheld from China. The Reagan administration did not reject Carter’s cooperative policies and eventually two Landsat ground stations were built in China.

After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, U.S.-China cooperation was an option to help address the launch shortfall caused by the grounding of the shuttle fleet. The same year, for example, the U.S. Defense Department raised no objections to the launch of WESTAR VI-S on a Long March 3, and the State Department had indicated to INMARSAT that it viewed China as a more favorable launch provider than Russia. Two years after Challenger, the members of the House Science Committee tended to support U.S.-China cooperation, with committee chairman Robert Roe (D-N.J.) arguing that international cooperation was necessary to rebuild U.S. technological competitiveness. Once again, risks were identified but these were focused on the commercial competition between Chinese and American launchers. The threat of the Soviet Union, both militarily and specifically in the commercial space sector, was clearly sufficient to justify continuing to cooperate with China in space.

The events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 temporarily ended this period of cooperation. Then- President George H.W. Bush’s order to end arms sales also halted the movement of U.S. payloads for launch in China. While members of Congress were far more active in pursuing this policy, Bush began to waive restrictions on satellites on a case by case basis in 1991 and 1992. This practice was continued when Bill Clinton took office in 1993; Clinton, like Bush, justified the exemptions as in the national interest. Congress seem to have finally made this kind of behavior too politically costly in the late-1990s, however. Legislation such as the Strom Thurmond Defense Authorization Act of 1998 contained language which forced the White House to report and explain each export exemption to Congress. The aftermath of the Cox Report, subsequent prosecutions for regulatory violations, and Rep. Frank Wolf ’s anti-cooperation clauses only compounded this situation. U.S.-China cooperation in space looked to be out of the picture.

Yet with the threat from Russia increasing both on the ground and in space, China may once again become a viable partner to limit Russian influence. This is by no means an inevitability — the politics of all three countries are incredibly complex. Specifically, I would argue that there is rhetorical room for future American leaders to present a case for a return to Sino-U.S. space cooperation. This could only be done if it was grounded in the national interest, recognizing the risks, and building policy in such a way as to mitigate them. The 2016 presidential race so far has been incredibly unpredictable — U.S. space policy could develop unexpectedly over the next four years. A future president may well decide that guaranteeing American access to space requires cooperation to reduce some of the most dangerous behavior of other space powers. U.S.-China cooperation wasn’t always — and doesn’t have to stay — Hollywood fantasy.


Cameron Hunter is a research fellow at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress and a PhD Candidate at the University of Bristol, U.K.. His research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, with additional support from the Kluge Center. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of his funders.