Asia takes stock of new US space policy
By Peter J Brown
A new National Space Policy issued by United States President Barack Obama's
administration in late June emphasized the important role of international
cooperation in space and demonstrated the apparent willingness of the US to
begin work on a space weapons treaty. 
As the three major space powers in Asia - China, India and Japan - assess the
new policy, they must pay close attention not only to the details, but also to
the harsh political winds that are buffeting Obama these days.
Some see China as the big winner in this instance, while others see India and
Japan coming out on top.
"[The new US space policy] which lays out broad themes and
goals, does not lend itself to such determination for a specific country," said
Subrata Ghoshroy, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. However, he added,
"countries like India and Japan are expected to benefit more".
From the start, however, Obama's overhaul of both the US space sector as a
whole and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in
particular has encountered stiff opposition in the US Congress. That opposition
is likely to intensify as November's mid-term elections approach. In the US
Senate, attempts are being made to toss aside Obama's domestic space sector
Political infighting aside, it is not just US conservatives who do not want the
US to embrace China in space.
"Many members of the Obama administration and a large majority of the members
of Congress are opposed to cooperation with China in space. They want to deny
China status as a member in good standing of the international community of
space-faring nations," said Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China Project
Manager for the Global Security Program at the Massachusetts-based Union of
Concerned Scientists. "Many believe they have not earned that right. At the
same time, however, they have not specified what China must do to earn it. Some
tie cooperation in space to human rights. Others connect cooperation in space
it to other troublesome issues in the bilateral relationship."
Despite this enormous wall that has been in place for years, some experts still
view China as deriving great benefit from the new space policy.
"China will likely be the country to most clearly benefit," said Joan
Johnson-Freese, chair of the National Security Decision Making Department at
the US Naval War College. "That said, China likely still faces the most
challenges. Cooperation between the US and China will be a learning process,
and likely not an easy one for either party. And, because space technology is
largely dual-use there will inherently be questions about intent and demands
for transparency that are uncomfortable for both sides."
China's objectives are political, not technical in this instance. As the
Chinese strive to become respected members of the international community of
space-faring nations, some Chinese aerospace professionals see cooperation with
the US as an obstacle, according to Kulacki. A cooperative project with the US
in human space flight, for example, would take time, personnel and resources
away from their existing program.
"To date there have been no concrete proposals for cooperative projects from
either side, despite the express wishes of both presidents. US Secretary of
State Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang [Jiechi] seem to have dropped
the ball," said Kulacki. "The Chinese aerospace community has their own
long-standing plan for a national space station and they are well on their way
to completing it. They do not need access to US technology to do it."
Recent news accounts about supposed overtures being made to the Chinese by
several nations which participate in the International Space Station (ISS)
program were quickly dismissed by officials at NASA. 
"ISS participation has been the brass ring for China for many years, to show
them as a member of the 'international family of spacefaring nations' and add
another layer of patina to the legitimacy and credibility of their civilian
space program," said Johnson-Freese.
There is always concern about China obtaining design and systems engineering
ideas that would benefit its space station program. This should come as no
surprise given that China once built a launch site at the same latitude as
NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
However, ideology and not the threat of industrial espionage in space is the
key driver here.
"The most concern I have heard voiced has been by those who do not want to work
with a communist government," said Johnson-Freese.
This explains why no meaningful export reforms with respect to high technology
items in general and so-called dual-use space hardware exports to China in
particular have materialized despite promises made during Obama's presidential
"The strong anti-China lobby in Congress, which includes [Speaker of the US
House of Representatives] Nancy Pelosi as well as conservative Republicans and
Democrats will continue to oppose, for example, satellite launches by China,"
Opening the door to greater cooperation with China in space - a move that is
supported by the Russians and Europeans - will require Japan's nod of approval,
too, and thus far Tokyo has not given it.
"In terms of space cooperation, Japan has not been open to China. This new US
space policy will not open the door to China that much, too," said Associate
Professor Suzuki Kazuto of Hokkaido University's Public Policy School. "It is
due to China's lack of transparency rather than the attitudes of the US or
Cooperation with China in space is simply too unpredictable an undertaking, and
carries with it elements of risk that Japan and the US are not prepared to
"It is very difficult to foresee what would happen if China wanted to be on
board, and it would be too risky to involve China in any high-profile
programs," said Suzuki. "In space, there is always a possibility for
cooperation, particularly when it comes to scientific missions, but when it
comes to something more applications-oriented or to a strategically important
program, it would be difficult to cooperate with China, because there would be
too much at stake."
Chinese attitudes are hardening as well, and, "they are confident enough to go
forward on their own, and they would not be happy if the international
cooperation somehow undermines Chinese jobs or efforts by China to increase its
overall level of technical competence," said Suzuki.
Among other things, time is simply running out for China anyway as far as any
possible participation aboard the ISS is concerned, as the space station is due
to close in 2020. The rise of the US commercial space sector and its planned
ISS logistical missions, along with the rules surrounding ISS occupancy and the
ISS partnership, pose problems as well for China.
"Though China is demanding to participate in the ISS, there is no room and time
for that. There will be no way for China to participate," said Suzuki. " If
Japan, Canada, Russia or Europe would be willing to give up one of their seats
for a Chinese taikonaut, it might be possible, although it is subject to the
consent of all ISS partners. So, if the US allows Russia or any other country
to donate a seat to China, it could happen. But I think it is very unlikely."
India is a different story entirely, and India certainly welcomes the direction
in which the new US space policy seems to be heading.
"This could facilitate further cooperation with India-US technology transfer in
exchange for the use of Indian launch vehicles for US payloads. Space
cooperation with India already picked up speed after the agreement on nuclear
cooperation," said Ghoshroy. "The emphasis in the new policy on international
cooperation can only help this process. The policy also mentions potential for
government to government agreement for transfer of sensitive technology. For
example, US-India cooperation in missile defense is going forward."
Suzuki described India as a good partner with the US on certain space science
"India will be the happiest of these three Asian countries," said Suzuki. The
new US space policy makes cooperation in space with India more viable, "not on
the application programs, but on the scientific programs. When it comes to
space technology, Indian application programs are strongly concentrated on its
domestic concerns, and there is not much for the US to cooperate on these
programs. But for the science programs, it would be more viable."
Still, a curious debate is now underway in India. With the launch in early July
by the Indian Space Research Organization of a new satellite for Algeria - one
of five spacecraft launched simultaneously on a single launch vehicle by ISRO -
some in the Indian space sector are celebrating because certain foreign-built
components aboard the Algerian satellite have never been allowed into India
before, let alone processed through an Indian launch facility.
At the same time, others in the Indian space sector have been pointing fingers
and blaming the presence of foreign components aboard Indian spacecraft for
contributing to several recent partial and total mission failures.
While this gets sorted out, India's space program is entering an exciting
phase. Indeed, India could soon engage in more aggressive partnering at China's
Japan's situation is entirely different. Japan faces a difficult task of
adjusting and then readjusting to the shifting priorities in space spelled out
by the Obama administration. Part of the problem confronting Japan stems from
Japan's close alignment with the US after embracing the vision of space
cooperation and lunar exploration that started to emerge a few years ago as
part of former president George W Bush's plans for space.
"There has been a significant discussion on how to justify the exploration of
the Moon. But due to the cancellation of the Constellation program - only
partial cancellation may occur if a new bill in the US Congress is passed -
this has been in vain," said Suzuki. "For some people, the extension of ISS to
2020 might be good, but not for other people considering that it would increase
the spending on ISS further, which might possibly threaten the other space
In other words, Japan is uncertain about the status and integrity of certain US
space programs, just like everyone else. That said, Japan enjoys its leadership
role in space, and its work in areas such as innovative space engineering,
robotic spacecraft, and propulsion systems is well insulated from any tectonic
shifts taking place in the US space program.
While the new US national space policy seems to lend support to a ban on space
weapons or at least points to a reduced interest in the weaponization of space,
serious questions remain about how this might actually come about. Previous
Russian and Chinese proposals which have attracted much praise have sidestepped
verification which is an absolute necessity called for by the Obama
"The US just is not supportive of multinational treaties in general," said
Johnson-Freese. "What was done here was showing a more amenable attitude as
opposed to outright rejection. More than anything the new policy says it will
not be strictly relying on or looking to hardware to protect hardware."
A speech in mid-July by Frank Rose, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in
the Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation to the Conference on
Disarmament in Geneva reinforced this idea that the US government is opening a
new chapter. 
This receptivity contrasts with the Bush administration's tough stance which
was not really an invitation, and asserted that a new treaty was simply not
necessary because a pair of existing treaties were sufficient.
"Although heavily caveated, the new policy may mean that the US will
participate in discussions," said Ghoshroy. "US missile defense plans will
continue to be a major obstacle in any movement toward a new space treaty."
Because an agreement prohibiting intentional interference with US space systems
is in the US national security interest - over half of the active satellites
currently in orbit belong to the US - Kulacki supports the idea of a direct
debate with the Russians and the Chinese.
"It is not a prize we are handing out to Russia or China, whose desire for such
a treaty, while often expressed, has yet to be really tested. We should call
them on it, begin to negotiate in earnest, and see just how interested they
really are," said Kulacki. "Our military space capabilities are far more
advanced. Protecting those capabilities should be our highest priority. It
would help establish much needed norms in space that are in our national
Opponents are concerned that the US will pay too high a price and receive very
little in return by pursuing this objective. A treaty is no guarantee, the
argument goes, and some in the US voice support for offensive counter space
capabilities that are unconstrained by international law.
"That is, in my view, short-sighted. It is much easier for nations like Russia
and China, not to mention North Korea or Iran, to develop anti-satellite
capabilities than it is for them to match our overall military space
capabilities," said Kulacki. "Removing legal constraints on attacks in space
opens our strengths up to a weaker attacker and removes a layer of protection
that could prove critical in the moments leading up to an outbreak of
hostilities. Trading defense for offense in space is not to our advantage, but
to the advantage of a potential aggressor."
Asian nations have to wait and see if Obama loses lots of ground in the
upcoming election. If voters back away from Obama, this may doom part if not
all of the new US space policy before its even rolled out onto the launch pad.