A computer-generated rendering of the Tiangong space station, set to be up and running in 2022. Photo: Handout
A computer-generated rendering of the Tiangong space station, set to be up and running in 2022. Photo: Handout

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) deserves praise for continuing to push the boundaries of space exploration. This new endeavor reflects our achievements in science and our progress as human beings.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has said a return to the moon is a top priority. NASA wants to get to the moon as fast as possible, but China is also racing there. On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing, the space race has been reinvigorated by China in a high-stakes contest for scientific discoveries on the moon, Mars and beyond.

Space has become increasingly crowded since the end of the Cold War, with new countries, companies, and even private citizens operating satellites and becoming spacefarers. The recent increase in space activities poses new challenges to existing treaties, increasing the likelihood of conflict over a diminishing pool of resources close to Earth.

Major powers compete and cooperate in space. Forty-four years ago, the United States and Russia carried out a docking of their Apollo and Soyuz space capsules. Despite the ups and downs of US-Russian relations, cooperation continues in space, most visibly on the International Space Station.

Should the world’s superpowers collaborate on space science missions? Yes, in the long term, combining forces would make humanity’s exploration of deep space quicker, cheaper and more efficient.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft “phoned home” after a flyby of Ultima Thule in the early hours of New Year’s Day, and then China made history early this year when it landed the Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the moon. Both were big breakthroughs in space exploration, which benefits all humankind. It is essential for governments to work together internationally to pursue common goals. New Horizons’ remarkable journey and Chang’e-4’s successful mission benefit all mankind, not just the US and China.

China, which until now has developed its ambitious space program completely on its own, seems more open to international cooperation, especially with the United States. I recently met a group of Chinese scientists on a visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. I asked them what they made of their country’s advances in space and their thoughts for the future. They all spoke of their desire to see a fellow citizen on the moon and said they would like to work cooperatively with the United States in space exploration. They also said they believed that the more the US and China cooperate in space, the less likely it is that they will confront each other militarily.

I am not suggesting that the US should share all its technology with China. However, the truth is that the relations between those two countries are nowhere near as strained as those between the US and the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, so why not work toward joint missions? At the very least, both nations could develop a capability to monitor climate change, space weather, threats from asteroids, and other useful initiatives. Such collaboration has facilitated the development of new technologies, created commercial opportunities, identified opportunities for shared missions, and inspired younger generations to undertake the challenge of space exploration.

International cooperation is a great thing. It can be a useful foreign-policy tool as well as improve the space capabilities of the United States and its partners. A joint venture approach to manned space programs and deep space exploration has the potential to yield diplomatic, political and military benefits that vastly exceed in magnitude the cost of implementation.

There will be opportunities for more debate on vital space-policy issues in the US Congress. US policymakers should engage in an open discussion about possible avenues for cooperation with China’s civilian space program and expanding discussions with Beijing on space-science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flights and deep space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity, and mutual benefit. Washington needs to ensure that the US enters cooperative projects with open eyes, clear objectives, and a commitment to its values.

Greater collaboration between the US and China would be preferable to the secretive rivalry that characterized the early US-Soviet space race. The United States should express its commitment to advancing space exploration and urge China to join forces with it. The script for deep space exploration is constantly evolving and the United States can influence the direction, but only if Washington can persuade other countries to engage with it.

The past five decades have witnessed often-fierce international rivalry in space, but also surprising military restraint. The rise of China has reignited an old debate on the best route to space cooperation and global security.

The modern world is shaped by competing strategic ambitions, but this does not have to be true of space.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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