China, US need to build trust in space

By Zhang Baoxin Source:Global Times Published: 2019/2/5 12:16:07

After Chang'e-4 lunar probe successfully landed on the far side of the Moon, there has been considerable discussion among the US scientific community as to whether the US should embark upon a new cooperation with China for space exploration. A few weeks ago, US space agency NASA said in a statement that it is collaborating with the China National Space Administration for a lunar mission, and it is expected to image the landing site of Chang'e-4, using its lunar orbiter on January 31. The development marks the first time in eight years that China and the US have achieved such cooperation in aerospace, science and technology.

Nevertheless, the NASA statement also stressed that NASA's cooperation with China is transparent, reciprocal and mutually beneficial, has been approved by US administration and Congress and is in accordance with the relevant regulations. It can be seen that political factors in the US have had a lot of impact on this cooperation.

As quite a few US and Chinese science fiction films have shown in recent years, it is widely hoped that the US and China can work together in many high-tech fields, including aerospace, contributing to the peace and development of all human beings. Yet, in reality, such areas of cooperation are few and far between. One of the reasons why the two sides reached agreement this time was because the US side showed a more proactive attitude. According to NASA, considering its ambition to return to the Moon, it is essential to carry out continued cooperation with international partners. Moreover, the US side had asked the chief scientist of China's lunar program whether they could extend the lifespan of its relay satellite, and whether an American beacon device could be allowed to be placed on Chang'e-4.

In fact, in the 1970s, China and the US already conducted extensive cooperation and exchanges in the aerospace field. However, with the rise of the "zero-sum thinking" in the US, cooperation between the two sides for aerospace and other high-tech fields was frozen. In particular, the Wolf Clause, which was included in the US 2011 spending bill, bans any joint scientific research activities between China and the US related to NASA or coordinated by the White House's Science Policy Office. The clause also bans the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to, or utilized by, NASA. It directly closed the door to space cooperation between the Chinese and US governments.

Then, what has changed this time? There are mainly two reasons behind the restart of Sino-US space cooperation.

First, China's space industry has achieved fruitful results in collaborating with the international community in recent years, seeing more than 100 cooperation agreements inked with more than 30 national space agencies and international organizations. China has cooperated with the space agencies of some other BRICS countries to jointly build the BRICS Remote Sensing Satellite Constellation, and has supported members of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization to jointly construct a system of small multi-mission satellite constellations, which have all brought mutually beneficial results to the parties involved. By comparison, the two big space powers of China and the US have been facing great difficulties in cooperation due to the invisible obstacles.

Second, although there is still a certain gap between China and the US in the aerospace field, the US has also noticed the changing reality. China's space technology has been developing fast, especially in terms of the space station and lunar exploration. Both countries have their own space plans, which share extensive foundations for cooperation. Doing more work with less spending is also in line with what the US scientific institutes have always wanted.

At present, the biggest difficulty in China-US cooperation is the US' vigilance against China. Since aerospace technology usually involves lots of military technology, the US has taken stringent measures to safeguard their secret information in the few cooperation projects with China. When it comes to the launch of a US satellite by the Chinese side, many key procedures were operated by the US scientists, and the Chinese personnel were not even allowed to stand by. Even so, some US politicians still stubbornly believe that China still has the opportunity to steal the relevant technology from the US.

In recent years, China's space industry has made some remarkable achievements. Adhering to the principle of "peacefully developing and using space resources for the benefit of all mankind," China has offered invitations to welcome US cooperation. With the rapid advancement of China's space technology, the two countries now have complementary advantages in many civil aerospace fields and thus should carry out more extensive and in-depth cooperation for all mankind.

China plans to launch a manned space station and make it fully operational by 2022. If the International Space Station retires in 2024 as planned, then China will be the only country that has its own space station, at that time. Other countries including the US may need the Chinese space station to provide reliable support, which is also an opportunity to continue pushing forward with space technology through cooperation.

The author is planning director at China Aviation Industry Imaging Center.

Posted in: INSIDER'S EYE

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