Relations between the United States and China have seen many ups and downs over the past decades, but there were still efforts to maintain diplomatic relations. However, trade tensions have increased, reaching a peak over the past two years, to the point of instilling a certain distrust even in more scientific fields. The conquest of space, due to its close relationship with technological advances, has always been considered a sensitive area whose industrial secrets have always been well protected. The current trend is largely towards a collaboration between the different countries, each being able to bring a particular knowledge, to share the data recovered from national mission etc, and this in order to move forward quicker. However this implicit principle seems to not be applied between the United States and China as any collaboration between the two is subject to control under the Wolf Agreement.
It dates back to 2013 when U.S. Republican Franck Wolf, who used to be the lead of NASA appropriator in the House of Representatives, asked NASA to give a list of all the agency’s active Space Act agreements. A Space Act agreement can be defined as a legal agreement between NASA and another entity (a country or a space agency for exemple) in order to advance NASA missions and program objectives as well as to reinforce international cooperation in space activities. At the time, the U.S. space agency had over 550 active agreements with more than 120 nations but had no public list. So why a list of all Space Act agreements was suddenly requested? Franck Wolf never directly targeted China in particular but he was known as one of Congress’s strongest critics of the Chinese government. Being the lead of NASA appropriator in the House of Representatives, he introduced the now-called Wolf Amendment which limits NASA from working with Chinese commercial or government agencies. As to justify his demand of a list of all NASA’s Space Act agreements, he declared « While I suspect many of these (space act agreements) are appropriate, I am concerned that NASA may be sharing sensitive technologies for foreign governments, especially foreign governments that may not share our national interest in space ». Wolf added a provision in a law passed in July 2013 prohibiting NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any appropriated funds on anything related to space cooperation.
These restrictions had reached a point of diplomatic tension at the Kepler Science Conference II that was held in 2013. According to The Guardian newspaper, a Kepler specialist working at NASA wrote an email in which he explained that Chinese nationals, whether they would be student or a worker, could not attend the conference because « « federal legislation passed last March forbids us from hosting any citizens of the People’s Republic of China at a conference held ». This ban has angered an important number of American scientists which decided to boycott the meeting in protest as they could not support an event that would discriminate people based on their nationality. Republican Franck Wolf tried to appease the growing tensions by explaining that it was a misunderstanding on behalf of NASA. He explained that the restriction only apply to bilateral meetings and activities between NASA and the Chinese government, whereas the Kepler Science Conference was a multilateral event.
Franck Wolf introduced a final provision in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, which remains in effect as of today. This provision clearly states that no funds may be spent by NASA to “develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorised by law after the date of enactment of this act”. So it’s not really a prohibition as NASA is still able to collaborate with China but it’s under strict conditions. Indeed NASA will have to notify Congress in advance and gets its approval and this only for a specific interaction. For example, in 2019 NASA collaborated with China on the Chang’e 4 mission in order to monitor the moon lander and the rover. The American space agency was able to dot it only because Congress approved the collaboration.
On the other side, the relationship between the European Space Agency (ESA) with China seems more open and cooperative. The two agencies have already collaborated on China’s lunar exploration program. In 2005, there was an agreement which stated that ESA will provide ground stations for control and data relay of the Chang’e missions. In 2014 another pact was signed which allowed the two space agencies to share resources on the ground and in space concerning the training and actual spaceflight of international human crews.
One of the main reasons for the American concern about the Chinese space program is that it’s quite military oriented and definitely lacks transparency. As Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Asian Studies Center explained in 2014, it is important to remind ourselves that China is not in need for cooperation with the US. We still often have the impression that China is only a manufacturing country, an industrial country. But now China has completely caught up with its technological gap and surely even surpassed our knowledge in some areas. A mistake regularly made is that we think we are doing China a favor by cooperating with it whereas the country has a well developed space program. Indeed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a major space power and definitely has capabilities to access and exploit space that are equal or even exceed those of Europe.
The Chinese space program focuses on three main areas. First is satellites, it goes from communication satellites to weather satellites through navigation and positioning system satellites and earth observation and reconnaissance satellites. On top of this array of satellites, China also has three space launch facilities and uses its Long March vehicle to launch satellites into low, middle and geosynchronous orbits. Secondly is the manned space program, which was quite active up until last year, when the Tiangong space lab was deorbited. And lastly, the lunar exploration program, called Chang’e, which is considered successful through its different missions, though it was not entirely perfect.
The principle concerns lies in the links that the Chinese space program maintains closely with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is their military. It was created in 1956 with the establishment of the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of Defense. Surely enough, the Chinese military has played and is still playing an essential role in the management of the Chinese space programs. It has been reported that China’s satellites programs are often linked to military uses. Thus, a cooperation with China would probably involved the military. The United States may be afraid that China will benefit from a cooperation and get to data or technology that may improve it’s military power. National security reasons are underlying the Wolf Agreement.
Nowadays, the general opinion is leading towards a peaceful exploration of space, for scientific and humanistic purposes. Nevertheless China seems to have a more military view of space exploration. Yet the path that China is pursuing is in accordance with the rest of its national and international policy which is to extend its influence all around the world.
Nowadays, the debate is open on whether we keep the Wolf amendment or not. Even if the amendment does not prohibit collaboration between NASA and China, it certainly have a cooling effect on the relation between the two agencies. They are more reluctant to work together as it means going through an administrative process and asking permission to the Congress. It certainly limits the liberty of action of NASA. As Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Projects at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, rightfully pointed it out : does the Wolf Amendment have been effective in changing Chinese behaviour, either in space or on Earth? Harrison replied negatively since China’s rise as a space power kept growing.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, is in talks with his Chinese counterpart, CNSA administrator Zhang Keijan, on where the future collaboration between the two countries should be heading. Lunar exploration seems to be the path the two countries would walk on together.