Wilson Briefs l February 2015

China in Space: How Europe and
the United States Can Align Their
Views and Boost Cooperation
by Nicola Casarini

The European Union, through a series of collaborative projects, has built a
relationship of trust with China regarding civilian uses of space. The United
States, however, has withheld cooperation with China on space technology,
and the U.S.-Chinese relationship has been characterized by mistrust.
The transatlantic allies should create avenues for U.S.-European dialogue
about China and space, and should also work on joint projects to establish
standards for uses of space that all three parties can respect.

The European Union (EU) and the United States have different responsibilities in Asia,
leading them to different views of China and the use of space. The European Union in Asia
is mainly a civilian power with a negligible security presence but with significant economic
interests. Europe views international cooperation with China on space-related activities and
technology—limited to civilian applications— as a medium for building trust.
The United States, in contrast, is the main guarantor of Asia’s security and increasingly views
China as a competitor in space. Washington believes that because space technology provides

the United States and its allies with an asymmetric military advantage, it should not be shared
with China, and the United States stopped cooperating with China on space technology in the
late 1990s.

EU-China space cooperation
In the late 1990s, some European governments and aerospace companies began to
collaborate with China on space technology. In 1997, France and China agreed to a broad
cooperation accord on satellite construction and space research, and some British companies
developed microsatellites jointly with Chinese counterparts.
In February 2003, a joint Sino-European satellite
navigation cooperation center opened in
Beijing to promote industrial cooperation and
application development. On October 30, 2003,
the EU invited Beijing jointly to develop Galileo,
Europe’s global navigation satellite system
meant to rival the U.S. Global Positioning System
(GPS). China pledged to invest €200 million,
becoming the most important non-EU partner in
Galileo. According to the EU-China agreement,
cooperation is limited to civilian applications, and
Galileo’s encrypted signal (suitable for security
and military uses and other cases of threat or
crisis) has been withheld from China.

U.S.-China Navigation Constellations, 2011

Cooperation gives European companies access to the Chinese aerospace market. It also
lets Beijing acquire European technology and know-how, especially for developing its own
satellite system, the BeiDou. The BeiDou has been operational in the Asia-Pacific region since
December 2011, and by 2020 Beijing plans to establish it as a global system with thirty-five
satellites—challenging not only the GPS, but also Galileo.
In July 2008, the EU officially suspended space cooperation with Beijing due to technology
transfer problems, intellectual property rights infringement, and China’s use (for BeiDou)
of the frequencies allocated to Galileo. But in 2012, the two sides resumed collaboration
under pressure from Europe’s aerospace sector and improved Sino-European relations.
Cooperation expanded to include earth observation, space exploration, and space technology
development. Because Europe’s aerospace sector increasingly depends on exports,
commercial considerations often trump concerns over Asia’s strategic balance.



U.S.-China space relations
The United States has been reluctant to cooperate with Beijing because of technology
transfer and regulatory concerns, as well as pressure from politicians demanding a tougher
line toward China. Under the Clinton administration, however, the United States attempted
to cooperate with China on space transportation, hoping that China would agree to stop
exporting missile technology to Iran and North Korea. In 1998, the failed launch of an Intelsat
satellite on a Chinese Long March booster brought to light illegal missile technology transfers
from some U.S. companies to China. Subsequently, the George W. Bush administration put
space technology on the U.S. State Department’s munitions list and ended space cooperation
with Beijing altogether.
A 2001 report by the Rumsfeld Commission warned of a potential
“space Pearl Harbor” if adversaries attacked U.S. satellites.
In January 2007, when the People’s Liberation Army used an
antisatellite weapon to destroy an old Chinese weather satellite,
U.S. Air Force chief of staff General Michael Moseley called the
test a “strategically dislocating” event as significant as the Soviet
Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957.

A 2001 report by the
Rumsfeld Commission
warned of a potential ‘space
Pearl Harbor’ if adversaries
attacked U.S. satellites.”

China views U.S. dependence on space for activities
like military surveillance and communications as an
asymmetric vulnerability and has made considerable
investments in counter-space capabilities. In a June
5, 2014, report on China’s military power, the U.S.
Defense Department warned of China’s growing space
capabilities, particularly its fleet of surveillance satellites
and its ability to destroy other nations’ satellites as part
of a strategy to hinder U.S. forces’ aid to allies in the
East and South China seas in case of conflict.

testing / Shutterstock.com


In 2011, Congress passed a law prohibiting NASA
from using its funds to host Chinese visitors and from
working bilaterally with Chinese nationals affiliated with
a government entity or enterprise. U.S. analysts and
policymakers have criticized the EU for cooperating with
China, arguing that this cooperation allows Beijing to
enhance its space capabilities and power projection.


Joint transatlantic approaches
The transatlantic allies need better to understand each other’s interests in and approaches
toward China’s space program. Further, they should develop ways to build trust jointly with
Beijing on space.
• EU and U.S. policymakers should establish regular dialogue on China’s space
capabilities, in particular among the European Commission (Enterprise DirectorateGeneral), the European Space Agency, and the U.S. State Department on the civilian
side and between the EU Military Committee and the U.S. Defense Department on
the military side.
• The United States, the EU, and China should establish an informal working group on
international standards in space. It should focus on bridging the different positions and
on managing U.S.-China mistrust with the aim of adopting the Code of Conduct for
Responsible Space-Faring Nations (currently under negotiation).
• The United States, the EU, and China should establish an official communication
channel for information sharing and trust building among GPS, Galileo, and BeiDou.

Nicola Casarini
Former Public Policy Scholar
Nicola Casarini is a former Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center and Senior Fellow at
the Institute for International Affairs (IAI) in Rome.

Page 2 image: “U.S.-China Navigation Constellations, 2011” from “’Chinese GPS’ system (BeiDou) begins service,” Dec.
28, 2011, by Adam Gorski. http://blogs.agi.com/agi/2011/12/28/chinese-gps-system-beidou-begins-service/. Reprinted by
permission of AGI.

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