Sharing data on their respective missions to the Red Planet represents a major advancement in U.S.-China relations, though new tensions regarding space have emerged.
CHINA ON WEDNESDAY confirmed it has traded data with NASA regarding their respective Mars missions – a major advancement in cooperation between the two global powers in a relationship that is otherwise becoming dangerously adversarial.
As the Chinese National Space Administration was announcing the inter-governmental breakthrough, another element of the Chinese Communist Party was chastising the American space agency. A spokeswoman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council blasted NASA for listing the island nation as a "country" on its website under a program in which it allows users to submit their names and national origin to be sent to Mars on the next mission. China considers Taiwan a rogue province, not an independent nation, and a threat to its influence in the region.
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The dualistic nature of China's public statements represents a growing trend with the growing power, akin to what American diplomats experienced in Anchorage, Alaska, earlier this month. Traditionally short and staid opening remarks before the press at the high-profile summit devolved into a 90-minute rant with both sides attacking the other but were immediately followed by extensive closed-door sessions that Chinese officials later described as "positive" and "a good beginning."
Regardless of the source of Wednesday's rhetorical spat – perhaps evidence of what China calls its "wolf warrior" style of diplomacy – the substance of Wednesday's news represents a major source of progress in strengthening greater relationships between scientists on either side of the Pacific.
The Chinese National Space Administration said the data exchange took place as a result of consultations with NASA since January regarding Beijing's Tianwen-1 Mars probe in order to, as Chinese state media reported Wednesday, "lower the risk of collision with a handful of other spacecraft currently in Martian orbit." The coordination also included space agencies from the UAE and India, and the European Space Agency "to ensure the safety of our respective spacecraft."
The ability for NASA and similar scientific agencies to interact with Chinese officials is heavily restricted by the U.S. government under rules commonly known as the "Wolf amendment" and usually requires special permission from the FBI and notification to Congress.
Those who have been following the potential for this kind of collaboration say Wednesday's news is the product of years of work. And it will help soften future interactions between Beijing and Washington that otherwise would swiftly escalate.
"This type of platform for discussion and individual agency [to] agency interactions is the firm basis for 'normalizing relations with national competitors' that forms the basis to help lower the amplitude of immediate reactions," says Jim Head, a professor at Brown University's Planetary Geosciences Group, "and generally decrease tensions."
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Head, who is currently working with counterparts in China on that country's Lunar and Deep Space Exploration Program, says the announcement from the Chinese space agency "is part of a longer-standing set of discussions that have been going on for some time," including coordination on studies about objects in orbit and other observations in space.
He disregards China's anger about NASA's classification of Taiwan is "part of the inevitable 'tit-for-tat' contest that always accompanies the resumption of major power discussions as part of their positioning at the bargaining table," adding, "it is just simply better to ignore it and not over-respond."
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Wednesday's news is encouraging but hinges on details still to be worked out, including the transparency and timeliness of the data China shares.
"This could be the start of greater cooperation in space that hopefully would one day lead to meaningful discussions about steps to reduce the creation of space debris, limits on kinetic ASAT testing and broader norms of behavior in space," Harrison says, referring to anti-satellite weapons testing. "But we are still a long way from that. If China is trying to indicate that further cooperation with NASA is contingent on something to do with Taiwan, then that is not a good sign."
Some U.S. government agencies are careful in their descriptions of Taiwan – the State Department references a profile for it under a "Countries & Areas" heading, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative lumps it together with China and Mongolia. Though others, including NASA and the CIA on its World Factbook page clearly describe Taiwan as a country.
Paul D. Shinkman, Senior Writer, National Security
Paul Shinkman is a national security correspondent. He joined U.S. News & World Report in 2012 ... READ MORE
Tags: NASA, Mars, China, world news, space