Asia takes stock of new US space policy


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
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. [1]

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 agenda. [2]

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. [3]

"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 campaign.

"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," said Ghoshroy.
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 Japan."
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 accept.

"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 missions.

"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 expense.

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 programs."

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 administration.

"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. [4]

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 security interests."

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.

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