There has been a renewed effort by the US government to reach out to China and find ways to cooperate in space, including a brief mention of cooperation in space exploration last year when Presidents Obama and Hu met, as well as NASA administrator Bolden’s visit to China in October. Yet, those discussions have yet to result in any concrete steps for joint projects or other cooperative ventures between the two countries, apparently to the surprise and disappointment of some within the administration. One expert believes that it’s because China doesn’t need to cooperate with the US as much as American officials think it does.
At a space security forum Wednesday organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager for UCS, said China’s current space efforts were motivated by a single event: President Reagan’s 1983 SDI speech. That speech, he said, was a “Sputnik moment” for China, in particular scientists who convinced the leadership that this demonstrated the importance of space. “The United States was going to make another Kennedy-sized investment in this whole area of technology and China just could not be left behind,” he said. If China didn’t invest in space, “in the way the scientists put it in their letter to Deng Xiaoping, [it] ‘would make us a second-rate power again.’” China’s space capabilities, therefore, are tied closely to their national prestige and status, he said.
The growth of Chinese space capabilities during time, Kulacki said, means that cooperation with the US is simply not a high priority now. “As far as the technical community, there’s no real incentives. They don’t need anything” from the US, he said. He added that Chinese space professionals aren’t interested in cooperation with the US because it’s “nothing but problems”, interfering with their current efforts. Any push for cooperation would have to come from the political side, but space is not a high priority there, he noted.
“We need to get past the idea that the Chinese need us more than we need them,” Kulacki said. “We have to find something of value to bring to China if China is going to be enthusiastic about our efforts to engage them on this.” That’s a challenge, he said, since the administration in the US right now is more interested in taking small steps that are of little interest to the Chinese. “The United States doesn’t want to bring anything major to the table, but the Chinese need something major on the table in order for cooperation to ge started.” What could that “major” thing be? He suggested some kind of unspecified civil space project: “Somewhere to go together, something to do together, something to build; an actual, important project.”