The Obama administration is attempting to circumvent Congress by cooperating with China on space activities despite concerns about Beijing’s development of anti-satellite weapons and cyber theft of information from NASA, according to critics of the U.S. policy.
On Monday, the U.S. State Department led the first "Civil Space Dialogue" in Beijing with China’s National Space Administration (CNSA). According to a State Department press release, "U.S. and Chinese officials exchanged information on respective space policies" and "conducted discussions on further collaboration related to space debris and the long-term sustainability of outer space activities," as well as "satellite collision avoidance."
The inaugural meeting raised eyebrows among some analysts who noted the general prohibition in U.S. law against U.S.-China cooperation on space issues. Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), a staunch critic of the Chinese government’s cyber attacks and human rights abuses, inserted language in the 2011 U.S. spending bill that barred joint space activities among NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and China, a provision that remains in effect today.
The first U.S.-China space dialogue also raises questions about whether Beijing could use the expanded cooperation to steal U.S. space technologies, which it has been accused of doing repeatedly in recent years.
The U.S. appropriations act for 2015 maintains Wolf’s restrictions against U.S.-China collaboration on space issues. It reads, "None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) 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 unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act."
While the appropriations law does not specify that the State Department is banned from engaging in such bilateral activities with China, the first joint space dialogue included NASA’s counterpart in China and several examples of collaboration on space issues. Rick Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said it appears that the administration might be trying to bypass U.S. law and congressional oversight.
"The Obama administration's decision to circumvent Congress and proceed with dialogue about cooperation proves to China that it has correctly calculated that it can wait out the Americans, gain the benefits of space cooperation without making any concessions to U.S. and Western interests in avoiding war in space," he said.
The State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Top U.S. officials have increasingly raised concerns about China’s testing of space weapons and cyber hacking against NASA and other U.S. agencies and companies.
Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said earlier this year that the threat in space from China "is a real one" and that "it’s been demonstrated." Beijing tested two anti-satellite interceptor missiles in the last couple years that are designed to target low and high-earth orbit satellites, the latter of which include vital intelligence, navigation, and targeting systems.
China also conducted an anti-satellite test in 2007 that destroyed a Chinese weather satellite, creating tens of thousands of bits of orbital debris that threatened the International Space Station and other U.S. and global space systems. NASA officials described it as the most hazardous generation of debris in more than a half-century of space operations.
"Just seeing the nature of these types of activities show how committed they are to a counter-space campaign," Haney said. "So we have to be ready for any campaign that extends its way into space."
Fisher said "China is now leading the militarization of space," noting that it tested two new space launch vehicles within a week last month that could also serve as anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon systems.
"These are the Long March 6 tested on September 20 and the Long March 11 tested on September 25," he said. "Both are ‘rapid response’ small satellite launchers that could be quickly modified to carry ASAT interceptors."
He added that "China is building a dual-use, military and civil space station, a dual-use space plane, and is poised to make military use of its first Moon bases in the later 2020s or early 2030s. But instead of calling out China, this Administration is undermining the intent of Congress and strengthening China's credentials as a responsible leader in space."
Additionally, Fisher said that China could exploit the new dialogue with the United States to seize valuable space technologies. The State Department said in its release that "the two sides discussed ways to cooperate further on civil Earth observation activities, space sciences, space weather, and civil Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS)."
"These space technologies are inherently ‘dual use,’ meaning that China could gain knowledge from cooperation with the U.S. that could be used to threaten Americans," Fisher said. "The threat of China stealing U.S. space technology in the course of cooperation is very real."
China has repeatedly been accused of pilfering sensitive defense and space data from U.S. agencies in recent years.
The FBI reportedly investigated Rongxing Li, a former professor at Ohio State University and participant in NASA’s Mars exploration missions, last year for allegedly providing defense secrets to China. Despite his claim that he had no contacts with Chinese scientists, investigators discovered that he worked on government programs in China to produce advanced technologies. Li had access to confidential Department of Defense information on NASA’s 2020 Mars mission.
Last February, Li resigned from Ohio State and the Mars 2020 project and traveled to China, where he said he was taking care of his sick parents. No charges were filed against him.
Additionally, NASA has been the target of several cyber hacking efforts in recent years. A clandestine software program mined enormous amounts of NASA data in 2005—from computers at the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando and Johnson Space Center in Houston—and routed it to a system in Taiwan likely controlled by China. In 2002, a Chinese hacker also allegedly obtained sensitive information about rocket engine designs from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Further cooperation with China on space issues, Fisher said, is unlikely to blunt Beijing’s ambitions.
"Advocates for U.S. cooperation in space with China are motivated by the hope that by building ‘peace in space’ they can assist ‘peace on Earth,’" he said. "This was an illusion when sought with the former Soviet Union, and it is an illusion that China will abandon any of its power objectives on Earth in favor of cooperation in space."
The second meeting of the U.S.-China space dialogue will be held next year in Washington, D.C., the State Department said.