How did the faith-based desire for increased international cooperation become a foundational element of the current National Space Policy? Part of the issue is that it’s difficult to argue against cooperation, which tends to be viewed as one of those inherently good things (AKA boilerplate) that should be self-evident to all.
But when you unpack this sort of thinking, the reality emerges that cooperation is done for a purpose and too often the real purpose may be poorly understood, unarticulated, or even represent a hidden agenda. In general, space cooperation is pursued in the interest of sharing costs with others (versus going it alone) and other opportunities might be to gain insight (wink wink) into other nations’ space programs; to build (perhaps enduring) personal relationships with space leaders of other nations; or simply confidence-building measures, doing those things that reduce the chance that one’s own space programs may be viewed as threatening or adversarial.
As such, cooperation for cooperation’s sake, that is, when cooperation doesn’t somehow further the interests of the United States, would seem to serve no purpose at best and might be cross purposes with U.S. wellbeing at worst. And as we know, ‘no purpose’ has never really established itself as a compelling entering argument. Chinese space cooperation with the U.S. for the sole sake of cooperating would likewise serve no purpose. What is behind the desire for increased cooperation, that is, what are we really trying to achieve?
When a particular group of space policy experts gathers (that often code meaning they’re the ones who sponsored a particular space policy event, established the agenda, and invited the speakers) and says “recent changes within the Chinese government and industry present an opportunity for dialogue and possible technical cooperation,” the actual purpose being discussed is twofold: first, the ‘opportunity for dialogue’ and second, the ‘possible technical cooperation.’ Dialogue with China in this case is assumed to create beneficial relationships and technical cooperation is presumed to create cost sharing or cost avoidance for the United States. But just how, and in what areas, would this work?
An area where China can cooperate with the United States and Europe is in space science. Cooperative space development programs can be a key tool for moving forward these bilateral relationships, he [Ben Baseley-Walker, one of the referenced space policy experts] said.
But when it comes to U.S. space cooperation with China, fundamental questions remain: 1) how will an improved bilateral relationship with China as it regards space further the interests of the United States and 2) how will technical cooperation in space with China further the interests of the United States? It’s great to have a relationship with China that benefits the U.S. with regard to trade, buying U.S. debt, enhanced global security, furthering the ideals of Western democracies (rule of law, free markets, free elections, respect for human rights, etc.). But will space cooperation with China actually further our interests (and again, if so, how?) in these particular areas and how will such activities be perceived by others we care about in the region (to include South Korea, India, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and even Vietnam)?
It seems reasonable to suggest that cooperation (whether regarding space, trade, defense, or whatever it may be) needs to be pursued in order to do something to further the interests of the United States and its allies. Cooperation, like trade (itself a non-coercive manifestation of cooperation), exists for a beneficial purpose. Let’s make sure the beneficial purpose (and likelihood of success) is well understood before committing the nation to simple space-based platitudes and said-to-be self-evident goodness.