Work­ing with China opens door to es­pi­onage

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

It was an awk­ward mo­ment, to say the least. Tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore a House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee, Pres­i­dent Obama’s science ad­viser, John P. Hol­dren, was de­scrib­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s on­go­ing dis­cus­sions with China to de­velop joint space projects.

Prob­lem is, a law Mr. Obama had signed just weeks be­fore pro­hibits NASA or Mr. Hol­dren’s Of­fice of Science and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy (OSTP) from en­gag­ing in any bi­lat­eral ac­tiv­i­ties with China.

When chal­lenged (“Do you un­der­stand the mean­ing of the word ‘pro­hibits’?”) Mr. Hol­dren as­serted on ad­vice of coun­sel that the pres­i­dent was con­stru­ing the law as con­sis­tent with his in­her­ent con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity to con­duct ne­go­ti­a­tions (lawyer-speak for “You can’t tell us what is off lim­its”).

Mr. Hol­dren may pay the price (lit­er­ally) for this novel in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Now Frank R. Wolf, chair­man of the sub­com­mit­tee on com­merce, jus­tice, science and re­lated agen­cies is threat­en­ing to force com­pli­ance with the law by cut­ting OSTP’s bud­get when his sub­com­mit­tee meets Thurs­day to mark up next year’s ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill.

Leav­ing aside the “who’s-in- charge” is­sue, the larger ques­tion is: Is this a good law or a bad law? As the for­mer head of NASA and the first to visit China, and the for­mer head of U.S. coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence, we might be ex­pected to reach dif­fer­ent an­swers. Yet we are both in the re­al­ist camp. There are two schools of thought about space co­op­er­a­tion with China, each with its own self-ful­fill­ing prophecy:

The Chinese are de­ter­mined to steal our tech­nol­ogy and get ahead mil­i­tar­ily at our ex­pense, so any co­op­er­a­tive space projects are a lose-lose for us. (The na­tional se­cu­rity re­al­ists.)

Chinese es­pi­onage will suc­ceed no mat­ter what we do, so we might as well get what we can out of co­op­er­a­tive projects. (The science and tech­nol­ogy “re­al­ists.”)

We think both of these views are overly sim­plis­tic.

As Amer­ica pre­pares to box up the last space shut­tle for mu­seum dis­play, China is on a tra­jec­tory of ex­plo­sive growth in space — un­der a highly dis­ci­plined veil of se­crecy. We have pre­cious few in­sights into what the Chinese are do­ing or why. Based on our ex­pe­ri­ence with the Sovi­ets dur­ing the Cold War and with Rus­sia since, we think care­fully man­aged co­op­er­a­tive space projects — not putting part­ners into the crit­i­cal path, just se­lec­tive joint ef­forts on in­ter­est­ing things — could be the sin­gle best win­dow into Chinese plans and ca­pa­bil­i­ties in space.

At the same time, the Chinese have a far-reach­ing, mul­ti­lay­ered pro­gram for il­licit tech­nol­ogy ac­qui­si­tion from the United States. They are keenly in­ter­ested in space tech­nol­ogy, in which Amer­ica is still the world’s un­ques­tioned leader. Just ask 30-year spy Dong­fan Chung (Orange County, Calif.) or Shu Quan-Sheng (New­port News, Va.) or Lian Yang (Seat­tle), now serv­ing time for pass­ing in­ter alia space-shut­tle com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies, space-launch cryo­genic fu­els data and satel­lite semi­con­duc­tor de­vices, re­spec­tively. And that’s just the tip of the ice­berg.

We want to open chan­nels that al­low the pos­si­bil­ity that in the long run, a po­ten­tial ad­ver­sary can be­come a part­ner and ally. Joint space projects char­ac­ter­ized by trans­parency, rec­i­proc­ity and mu­tual ben­e­fit can be an ex­cel­lent way to be­gin. Is it pos­si­ble to man­age the in­her­ent risks while pur­su­ing our larger goals?

If we had an ef­fec­tive coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­ity to iden­tify and dis­rupt Chinese col­lec­tion ac­tiv­i­ties, this would be an eas­ier call. Timely trip­wires that sig­nal when the other side is step­ping across the line would en­able us to man­age the risk of close in­ter­ac­tion and gain the ad­van­tage of rare in­sights into China’s space pro­gram. Un­for­tu­nately, U.S. ef­forts to build such a strate­gic ca­pa­bil­ity against for­eign in­tel­li­gence threats have fallen by the way­side, while Chinese es­pi­onage con­tin­ues to grow.

We be­lieve the United States is pay­ing an op­por­tu­nity cost by walk­ing away from pos­si­ble joint space projects with China, but with­out a more ro­bust coun- ter­in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­ity, we stand to lose more than we would gain. Nor does it make sense to ven­ture into co­op­er­a­tive ac­tiv­i­ties that may con­trib­ute to China’s mil­i­tary mod­ern­iza­tion or global strate­gic am­bi­tions.

The statu­tory pro­hi­bi­tion against bi­lat­eral space projects wisely puts the brakes on a down­hill rush to en­gage with the Chinese. In the ab­sence of a larger strat­egy guid­ing pol­icy and pro­grams on China, it is un­clear whether co­op­er­a­tive space projects would ad­vance or hin­der U.S. in­ter­ests. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should use this time­out to take stock and then re­turn to Congress with a co­her­ent ap­proach to space co­op­er­a­tion with China that is more than a raw as­ser­tion of the pres­i­dent’s au­thor­ity to con­duct for­eign af­fairs as he may please.

Michael Grif­fin was the ad­min­is­tra­tor of NASA un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. Michelle Van Cleave was the na­tional coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence ex­ec­u­tive un­der Pres­i­dent Bush and as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the White House Of­fice of Science and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy un­der Pres­i­dents Rea­gan and Ge­orge H. W. Bush.

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