NASA opens door to China on space
Beijing takes part in a workshop with 30 other countries
MARK CARREAU and PATTY REINERT - Houston Chronicle

Long shunned as a player in U.S-led international space ventures, China has been admitted to talks with NASA about helping to accomplish President Bush's goals for exploring the moon and Mars.

With the blessing of the U.S. State Department, a Chinese delegate this week joined representatives from Russia, Japan, Canada and other foreign powers for a NASA-sponsored workshop on the unfolding space initiative. China's involvement in the three-day workshop that ended Thursday was a small but highly visible breakthrough in relations with a potential to improve global security as well as advance space exploration, participants and outside experts said.

But they cautioned against reading too much into the session, which drew representatives from 30 countries. More talks are planned for early next year. "This indicates a very cautious, small first step," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a national security specialist at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., who monitors Chinese developments. "The fact we did invite and China did send someone is very good news, but I would not jump to the conclusion there will be a partnership."

In October 2003, the Chinese joined the United States and Russia as the only nations that have placed humans in space. They launched taikonaut Yang Liwei on a 21 1/2 -hour orbital mission. The feat was accompanied by reports that China wants to build its own space station and explore the moon.

Friction over several issues
In spite of its growing economic might and emerging civil and military space programs, China has been excluded from the U.S.-led partnership in the International Space Station. The team includes Russia, the European space powers, Canada and Japan.

China, run by a communist government, was thwarted from attending the World Space Congress in 2002, though a high-ranking Chinese officials later toured NASA's Johnson Space Center. China's human rights policies, the fate of Taiwan and several other gaping issues have created lasting friction between the nation and the United States.

Now, a collection of sometimes awkward mutual interests is the most visible factor that has brought the space-exploring countries closer, experts said. The interests include China's potential to stave off a nuclear threat to the world from North Korea, the steady loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to China, and the space initiative, outlined by President Bush in January, that calls for an accelerated human and robotic exploration of the solar system.

Though often overlooked, the president's directive to enlist the participation of other nations in the strategy provided an opening, said Michael O'Brien, NASA's director of external relations. The space agency included China on a guest list that also encompassed Israel, South Korea, Australia and Ukraine.

"It was somewhat precedent-setting to have the Chinese there," said O'Brien, who nevertheless emphasized the tentative nature of the session in a teleconference with reporters.

Congress has not fully embraced Bush's space exploration strategy and its initial price tag of at least $95 billion, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. However, House and Senate negotiators are attempting to iron out differences over NASA funding this week.

Step seen as 'significant'
A response to last year's accidental destruction of the Columbia space shuttle, the plan would replace NASA's aging shuttle fleet by the end of the decade. With a more capable craft, explorers would aim for the moon by 2020 and attempt missions to Mars as soon as 10 years afterward.

Quan Jing, a Chinese diplomat and visiting fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, said an opportunity for China and the United States to collaborate in space would be "a very significant step forward for the two countries."

The United States and China also are working on better trade relations, and they cooperate in fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and money-laundering, he said.

In addition to its new manned spacecraft, China could make a range of potential contributions in space robotics and with its established ability to launch expendable rockets, experts said.

Bush plans to meet with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in South America this week. The two also met in Thailand shortly after China launched its first human into space. In an interview with Channel News Asia then, Bush said he made no pledge to cooperate in space, and added, "I hope they are able to make great discoveries in space, like we did."
Robert Walker, the former Republican lawmaker who regularly advises the White House on space issues, cast a potential alliance with China in a favorable light.

"If we can find a way to bring them into the international participation, it will give us some insights into their program that we don't now have," he said. "They have both launch capabilities and now human orbital capabilities, and that's a pretty sophisticated program."
Congressional reaction to a U.S.-Chinese space alliance would be cautious, Walker said. In 2001, some U.S. officials looked warily on space exploration cooperation between China and Russia.

"Clearly, certain of our technologies we don't want to share with foreign partners along the way, and I suspect the same is true of them," Walker said.

But the United States could work productively with China, as it has done with Russia, within limits on technology-sharing, he said.