Nov 17, 2020 - Science

The U.S.-China split in space

Animated illustration of a white star and a yellow star separating against a space background.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China and the U.S. don't collaborate in space —a decades-old divide that is shaping the future of both nations' space programs.

Why it matters: U.S. semiconductor companies and those in other sectors are under pressure — from politicians and consumers — to become less reliant on China. The record of the nations' parallel ambitions in space shows what the U.S. gains and loses when it cuts China off.

Catch up quick: China has a flourishing space program with big ambitions. The nation is expected to build a space station in orbit in the coming years and eventually plans to send people to the Moon.

  • Those plans run in parallel to U.S. ambitions to send people back to the lunar surface as the International Space Station program comes to an end.
  • Both nations also have strong military presences in orbit: China's tests of its anti-satellite weapons worry many U.S. space watchers that the nation doesn't adhere to widely accepted norms in orbit. The U.S. relies on spy satellites and other assets in space to fight wars.
  • Unlike arrangements with other U.S. allies and adversaries that have so far held peace between powers in space, NASA and China are prevented from cooperating in space without congressional approval under the Wolf Amendment, first passed in 2011.

Where it stands: This separation in space means the U.S. and China sometimes pursue different technologies and goals, and build separate international collaborations.

  • Broad export controls cost the U.S. space industry access to the growing Chinese market.
  • Still, the U.S. space program as a whole is stronger and is likely to remain so, Matthew Daniels of Georgetown University writes in a new report from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

But the U.S.-China separation in space "may have long-term costs that exceed their benefits to America," the report says.

  • The lack of cooperation means the U.S. may not get timely access to scientific data from China’s ambitious missions to the Moon and Mars.
  • And it makes it difficult for the U.S. to understand — and therefore compete with — the Chinese space program, Daniels writes, while it risks "ceding international leadership opportunities" for the U.S. in space and reducing opportunities to de-escalate conflict in space.
  • If the U.S. is focused on international leadership and managing risk in space, "some narrow relaxation" of policies may be needed, he writes.

Between the lines: The U.S. effectively cut China off in part as a way to limit China’s advancements in space, but that largely hasn’t worked.

  • "The hope was that if we wall off our technologies from China, they'll never get it," Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation told Axios. "But of course they just did it themselves. So we also lost a China that would be reliant on other countries' technologies, and instead, they have this burgeoning indigenous industrial base that is rapidly advancing."

Yes, but: It's not clear China would want to collaborate on big missions in space with the U.S. if that option was on the table.

  • China's space program largely developed during a time when the nation was effectively isolated from the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the great superpowers of the time, making the nation's space industry largely independent from the beginning, according to the Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng.
  • There are concerns about whether Beijing would be transparent if the two nations did collaborate and how to navigate a sector where civil and military lines blur.
  • "The ability to learn about their intentions, plans and directions through engagement really only works if they're willing to share information from their side," Daniels told Axios. "I don't know if we have a clear indication of that."

The big picture: AI, biotech and other sectors in the U.S. and China are more deeply entwined today than the space industry, making it more difficult to divorce from one another.

  • "Like a couple quarreling in a shared house or, more dramatically, like conjoined twins whose circulatory systems cannot be separated, China and the United States can find means of securing greater independence, but they cannot be 'decoupled,'" Richard Danzig and Lorand Laskai write in an accompanying paper.
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