In the last decade, the EU and China have expanded their bilateral cooperation to include satellite navigation, earth observation, space exploration and space technology development – in stark contrast with the US which increasingly views Chinas as a space competitor. This has significant implications for Europe’s aerospace sector.
In the late 1990s, some European governments and aerospace companies began collaboration with China on space technology. On 30 October 2003, the EU invited Beijing to jointly develop Galileo, Europe’s global navigation satellite system meant to rival the US Global Positioning System. According to the EU-China agreement, the cooperation is limited to civilian applications.
This form of cooperation facilitates European companies’ entry into the Chinese aerospace market while allowing Beijing to acquire European technology and know-how to be used concurrently to develop China’s own satellite system, the Beidou. Since December 2011, the Chinese system is operational in the Asia-Pacific region and Beijing plans to establish it as a global system with 35 satellites by 2020, challenging not only the US GPS, but also Galileo.
Due to a number of issues, the EU decided to officially put a halt to its satellite navigation cooperation with Beijing in July 2008. Their collaboration resumed, however, in 2012 – expanding to cover issues such as earth observation and space exploration.
The US has been reluctant to cooperate with Beijing because of technology transfer concerns and regulations as well as political pressure from those who want to take a tougher line. Under the Clinton administration, the US attempted to cooperate with China on space transportation. The administration of George W. Bush curtailed cooperation in space activities that Clinton had initiated. The 2001 report by the Rumsfeld Commission warned of a potential “space Pearl Harbor” if adversaries attacked US satellites. In January 2007, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite using an anti-satellite weapon prompting General Michael Moseley, US Air Force (USAF) Chief of Staff, to declare the test a “strategically dislocating” event – as significant as the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957.
China views US dependence on space as an asymmetric vulnerability that could be exploited and, like the US, it has made considerable investments in developing counter-space capabilities. The US wants to prevent the transfer of any technology with military applications that might assist China in countering US space assets. In 2011, the US Congress passed an exclusionary 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.
The EU and the US do not have the same responsibilities in Asia and tend to look at China and the use of space differently. The US is the main guarantor of Asia’s security and increasingly views China as a space competitor. Washington believes that space technology should not be disseminated, as it provides the US and its allies with an asymmetric military advantage.
The EU is mainly a civilian power with a negligible security presence in Asia, but significant economic interests. The EU views space-related activities and technology as a medium for international cooperation. For Brussels, space cooperation with Beijing – limited to civilian applications – is meant to build trust with China.
Europe’s aerospace sector, increasingly dependent on exports, finds a promising market in China. It would be in the long-term interest of aerospace companies to devote the necessary attention to the dynamics outlined above, including an assessment of the impact that transatlantic difference over China in space could have on future business.
A longer version of this article is published as a Wilson Brief with the title: China in Space: How Europe and the United States Can Align Their Views and Boost Cooperation.