Muted Response from Critics as State Department Prepares for Space Talks with China

Muted Response from Critics as State Department Prepares for Space Talks with China

Five weeks ago, the State Department announced agreement on a U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue that will begin in October, a short three months from now.  With all the hyperbole that usually surrounds discussions of U.S.-China space cooperation, a firestorm of outrage from critics and exuberance from advocates might have been expected, but the reaction has been almost nonexistent.

The muted response from critics is all the more surprising since the State Department’s announcement came in the midst of news that China hacked into the Office of Personnel Management’s computer system, stealing data on more than 22 million current and former government employees and their relatives.

Indeed the State Department issued a press release listing a total of 127 “outcomes” – of which the civil space dialogue is only one – from bilateral talks between the two countries held on June 22-24.  Underscoring the complexities of diplomacy, the United States is castigating China on the cybersecurity front while agreeing to engage on many other fronts.

The State Department is preparing for the first civil space dialogue meeting at the end of October in China.   Kia Henry, a State Department spokesperson, said that all discussions will comply with U.S. laws and regulations.  The State Department will chair the discussions with “support from NASA, the FAA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey and DoD.”  Henry said they will consider environmental and scientific satellite data exchanges and spaceflight safety issues such as satellite collision avoidance.

NASA is prohibited by law from engaging in bilateral activities with China unless authorized by Congress or 30 days advance certification is provided to Congress that such engagement poses “no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications” and does not involve known violators of human rights.

Kia said that it is NASA’s responsibility to submit the required certification.

Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a strong critic of China for many reasons, including human rights, was largely responsible for creating that prohibition several years ago and continuing it in subsequent appropriations act.  He chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and is now retired, but his successor, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) holds similar views and continued the prohibition in the FY2016 CJS bill that passed the House in June.

SpacePolicyOnline’s attempts over the past two weeks to obtain a reaction to the State Department’s announcement from Culberson, however, were unsuccessful.

Outside of Congress, the most outspoken critics of potential U.S.-China space cooperation do not appear to have publicly commented either (’s repeated attempts to contact one of them also yielded no results.)  Eric Sterner, a Fellow at the Marshall Institute, however, offered his views in a July 27 op-ed published by Space News.  While agreeing that a dialogue could be valuable in areas such as collision avoidance, debris mitigation and science, he sees “little compelling reason for those discussions to evolve into civil space cooperation.”  He disagreed with those who argue that cooperating in space leads to better geopolitical relationships on Earth, noting that Russia’s participation in the International Space Station did not dissuade its leaders from invading Ukraine.

A leading advocate of cooperation praised the decision.  Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College who has written books about the Chinese space program, told that the congressional ban “largely serves domestic political goals” and the State Department’s announcement seems to be a ‘recognition that in geopolitics, dialogue is always better than no dialogue.”  She added that working with China on a space science project, for example, would allow the United States “to learn more about their decision making processes” and standard operating procedures, a “not inconsequential benefit.”

A key point will come in September when the House returns from its August recess and NASA submits the 30-day advance certification.  Congress will be busy on other issues, like trying to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating, and perhaps the topics planned for this first civil space dialogue are sufficiently non-controversial that the certification will be accepted perfunctorily.   Still, for all the rancor that the issue has engendered in the past, and the timing of the announcement amid accusations of Chinese cyberattacks on U.S. government databases, the subdued reaction is remarkable.

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