Relearning the Dangers of Space Cooperation With China

January 30, 2019 Updated: January 31, 2019


Former Obama administration NASA Director Maj. Gen. (ret.) Charles F. Bolden, in a Jan. 14 interview in China Daily, called for Congress to repeal the 2011 “Wolf Amendment” requiring bilateral space cooperation with China to have congressional approval.

Furthermore, Bolden called for Chinese astronauts to be “integrated” into the International Space Station (ISS) program to help China “avoid some of the mistakes” encountered with the ISS as it proceeds with assembling its own space station.

In essence, Bolden advocated reviving the early Obama administration’s agenda to begin active space cooperation with China.

Early in 2009, then-White House science adviser John Holdren opined that U.S. astronauts could ride Chinese spaceships to the ISS after the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle. Then, during his first visit to China, President Barack Obama took the first step toward such cooperation. A Nov. 17, 2009, joint statement noted that the United States and China looked forward to “starting a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit.”  

But by October 2010, when Bolden made his first visit to China as NASA director, Republican congressional opposition to cooperation with China in space was being led by now-retired Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who was then chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.

Wolf’s policies were continued by his successor, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). In 2011, Congress passed restrictions that forbade NASA from using funds for bilateral U.S.–China space cooperation. But in 2013, Wolf clarified that his legislation didn’t bar “multilateral cooperation,” such as meetings at international conferences.  

For Wolf, a leading congressional critic of communist China, it was clear that China’s space program was controlled by its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to advance the goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-led dictatorship. Wolf saw China as a military threat to the United States that armed other dictatorships like Iran and North Korea.

In a May 2011 testimony before the congressionally mandated U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, Wolf stated that China was, “[one] of the world’s worst human rights abusers [that did not] deserve to be rewarded with greater ‘cooperation’ with the U.S. … The U.S. has no business cooperating with the PLA to help develop its space program.”

While Wolf retired in 2015, to the reported “cheers” of some supporters of space cooperation with China, his concerns remain even more valid today.

Military Threat

In late 2015, China created a “Space Force,” subordinate to its new Strategic Support Force (SSF), to control all Chinese military and non-military space activities. 

A recent U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) report noted that China has now deployed multiple units of ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, having demonstrated a successful ASAT interception in January 2007. The report also noted that China is working on space weapons that will be stationed in low Earth orbit, where most U.S. satellites reside.  

For example, China likely will use its new three- to six-man space station, expected to be launched by 2022, to carry out military missions. With insights gained from espionage against Russia in the late 1990s, China’s space station uses large detachable mission-oriented modules, similar to the Russian Energia Corporation’s MIR space station design.

The military advantage of this design is that the PLA can build specialized mission modules for surveillance, anti-satellite, or Earth-bombing operations, similar to Soviet military plans for MIR.

In his China Daily interview, Bolden appeared to suggest that the United States could cooperate with China on its space station. But sending U.S. astronauts to a Chinese space station on U.S. spacecraft, or allowing Chinese spacecraft to dock with the ISS, would constitute an open door for Chinese espionage against U.S. space technology. The PLA would be the ultimate beneficiary of insights into U.S. space designs, materials, and procedures.

Such cooperation would also constitute a cruel irony considering that, in 2008, China very likely practiced a military interception of the ISS. On Sept. 27, 2008, in a possible simulated attack interception exercise, China’s Shenzhou-7 spacecraft passed within the 28-mile box around the ISS, just after it had launched a small microsatellite.

But what is galling is that, following this incident, neither officials from the George W. Bush nor the Barack Obama administrations offered any public reaction, much less any explanation for China’s actions, which could have threatened the one American and two Russians who were aboard the ISS.   

Preventing Dominance

As the PLA has consistently sought civil-military “dual-use” benefits from its control of China’s manned and unmanned space programs, it can be expected that the PLA will also derive dual-use benefits from China’s activities on the moon.

By controlling the “Earth-Moon System,” it’s likely that CCP leaders harbor ambitions to deny access to any emerging “space economy,” or a new era of economic growth on Earth stimulated by economic activity on the moon and Mars.  This would be consistent with China’s strengthening domestic dictatorship and its ambitions to dominate economic, political, and military power on Earth.

By denying the “legitimacy” for China’s space program that would be conferred by full U.S. cooperation, the Wolf Amendment constitutes an enduring U.S. moral “sanction” against China, signaling that free people still oppose the CCP’s pursuit of dictatorship and hegemony on Earth and in space.

The intent of the Wolf Amendment should be sustained until China reveals and verifiably dismantles its military-space program elements that threaten democracies. Doing so will continue Rep. Wolf’s legacy by seeking to ensure that space cooperation with China doesn’t increase the ability of the PLA’s Space Force to threaten America’s security and future prosperity.  

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, and author of “China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.