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In the most recent continuation of a rare success story of cooperation between the United States and Russia, Washington recently extended its agreement on cooperation in space with Moscow, which has survived deteriorating relations on Earth, until September 2030.

In 1975, two space modules — one American, the other Soviet — docked in the first international manned mission to space, Apollo-Soyuz. At the time, it seemed like an isolated example of rapprochement in space, but it set the stage for future cooperation. Through the Shuttle-Mir program in the 1990s and the ongoing International Space Station program, NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, have maintained cooperation despite otherwise frosty relations between the two countries.

The duopoly of the United States and Russia in manned spaceflight was broken in 2003 when the launch of Shenzhou 5 made Yang Liwei China’s first astronaut to orbit Earth and China the third country to achieve human spaceflight capabilities. While the previous four decades of space exploration had been characterized by extensive international cooperation, the U.S. Wolf Amendment passed in 2011 essentially prohibits any direct cooperation between NASA and its Chinese counterparts and leaves China as the odd one out. What explains this discrepancy in U.S. relations with its two main rivals in space?

It is worth noting that the Wolf Amendment does not explicitly ban any cooperation between NASA and its Chinese counterparts, but merely states that NASA is banned from using government funds to cooperate with China in the absence of direct Congressional approval. The effect of the policy, however, has been to prevent nearly all contact between NASA and China.

A 2019 report by the United States Economic and Security Commission (USCC) showcases the arguments for maintaining this policy. It asserts that China is aggressively pursuing technology from abroad, has specific plans to industrially dominate cis-lunar space, is utilizing its space program for geopolitical objectives, views space as a critical U.S. weakness and is developing and fielding anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.

Oddly, however, the U.S. government easily sets aside such arguments in the context of U.S.-Russian space relations.

Russia is also using its space program to advance its geopolitical aims. According to statements by the Russian Ministry of Defense, Russia has been utilizing its imagery and electronic warfare satellites in its intervention in the Syrian Civil War. There are also reports that Russia has supplied Iran with an advanced imagery satellite and the United States has accused Russia of using its cyberwarfare capabilities to steal satellite data.

Nor is China alone in fielding ASATs. The United States Space Command (USSC) accused Russia of conducting ASAT tests in 2020. According to Gen. John Raymond, commander of the USSC: “This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

Justifying the China exclusion policy in terms of military security threats is incongruous when the United States continuing cooperation with Russia. The only possible logic for this seemingly muddled policy can be found in the way that Russia’s and China’s space ambitions are perceived. Russia’s space program has been discussed in terms of decline ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, although this is not entirely accurate as the United States had to rely on Russian rockets between 2011 and 2020 when it lacked independent human spaceflight capabilities. The rapid progress of China’s space program means that there is an increasing perception in the United States that China could surpass it in the coming years or decades. The USCC report illustrates the current U.S. narrative on China’s space program:

China’s goal to establish a leading position in the economic and military use of outer space, or what Beijing calls its “space dream,” is a core component of its aim to realize the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In pursuit of this goal, China has dedicated high-level attention and ample funding to catch up to and eventually surpass other space-faring countries in terms of space-related industry, technology, diplomacy and military power. If plans hold to launch its first long-term space station module in 2020, it will have matched the United States’ nearly 40-year progression from first human spaceflight to first space station module in less than 20 years.

It seems that the narrative of China’s rise has not stayed on Earth. Hence, U.S. cooperation with China is arguably held back by fears that China’s space advances will seriously threaten U.S. leadership and prestige in space. While the U.S. role as the senior partner in its cooperation with Russia has never been in doubt, a Chinese space program growing stronger by the day could leave the United States the junior partner in the event of future Sino-U.S. cooperation.

These fears, however, are more the product of hyperbole than of fact. While NASA currently plans for the United States to return to the moon in the coming years, China is still in the process of constructing its space station and only plans to undertake human missions to the moon in the 2030s, in a program that also includes Russia.

The exact time frame for this program and what it entails, however, are unclear, as the Russian version of the agreement is more ambitious than the Chinese. The Chinese-Russian lunar program does illustrate, however, that the picture of a rapidly advancing Chinese space program poised to surpass that of the United States is dubious at best.

Russia-U.S. cooperation in space shows that the China exclusion policy is motivated less by the security risks of opening up to China and more by the U.S. fear of losing its leadership position. It also illustrates the loss of potential that the policy has meant for both sides. By drawing on each other’s strengths, the U.S. and Russian space programs have both benefited.

While the United States has consistently taken the lead on both spending and scientific research in space, its cooperation with Russia has been a significant enabling factor. It was only through this partnership that the United States could continue its manned spaceflight program after it decommissioned its Space Shuttle in 2011. For Russia, the partnership might well have helped save a space industry faced with possible demise in the 1990s.

More generally, the effects of international cooperation in space have not been confined to scientific research. Disaster management in particular has proved fruitful ground for international cooperation in space. Initiatives such as the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters showcase how space-based technology can have concrete effects on the ground across the world. Similarly, cooperation between other space agencies, such as the European Space Agency and China has been successful in the field of Earth observation.

The lesson here, and from decades of Russo-U.S. cooperation, is that cooperation in specific fields can be conducted in spite of tense bilateral relations. The alternative to this can be seen in the Space Race that preceded the era of cooperation. The room for countries and organizations outside Russia and the United States to actively participate in, and reap the benefits of, space exploration and space-based technology simply did not exist in the confrontational Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Bilateral competition for supremacy in space will only exclude possible partners and prevent the productive use of resources in these expensive endeavors. Instead of modeling the future on Cold War competition, recent decades have showcased more positive developments. They also point to the conclusion that competition with China in space will be detrimental not only for China and the United States, but also for the rest of the world.

Adam Gadd is a research associate at the Swedish Defence University. © 2021, The Diplomat

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