When President Obama visited China last week he announced that the “United States and China look forward to expanding discussions on space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration … the two sides believed that the two countries have common interests in promoting the peaceful use of outer space and agree to take steps to enhance security in outer space. The two sides agreed to discuss issues of strategic importance through such channels as the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and military-to-military exchanges.” The Chinese space program is an arm of the Chinese military. Any cooperation with China that affords it access to sensitive U.S. technology in this area should be a non-starter.
Eric Sterner of the George C. Marshall Institute pens in Aviation Week that closer space cooperation with China will likely lead to “greater opportunities for China to acquire sensitive technology.” He argues it could contribute to Chinese military modernization and, a more than certain scenario, the proliferation of sensitive U.S. technologies to state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran and other countries that have no business acquiring cutting-edge U.S. technology. A former Congressional and NASA staffer, Sterner reminds readers of China’s long record of illegal trafficking in sensitive U.S. technologies.
International space cooperation should come second to U.S. technological and security superiority. If we are going to closely cooperate with foreign powers, it should be with our allies that are not out to undermine U.S. interests in a myriad of ways. While the U.S. export control regime toward China is good, it could be better. At this juncture, opening the door to more access to U.S. technology via outer space cooperation is not the way to go. While it is unlikely to take this step, before the Obama Administration opens this cooperation portal, it should seriously consider a September 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendation that “Commerce should suspend the [Verified End User] VEU program to China until an amended or new agreement is reached to conduct onsite reviews and VEU-specific procedures for conducting on-site reviews are established.”
The Bush Administration put in motion the VEU program. The program authorizes the export of certain sensitive technologies to China without export licenses from the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS). Barely a few years in operation, a paper by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Controls shows that some pre-approved Chinese companies in the VEU program have been “linked to proliferators, to violators of U.S. export controls, and to China’s military production complex.” And it is not just the VEU program that poses risks, there are problems right here in the U.S. For a good summary of 2008 Chinese industrial espionage cases, take a look at Appendix B of the Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage released this summer by the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX).
A bottom up review of the U.S. export control regime with regards to China is long overdue. The United States needs a better handle on what controls need updating or, in some cases scrapping, before it expands cooperation in sensitive fields such as outer space exploration. We want to keep and strengthen our competitive and security advantage, not give it away or unwittingly weaken it.