In 2011, US Republican Senator Frank Wolf functionally banned space cooperation between the United States and China by passing the “Wolf Amendment.” The Wolf Amendment bans scientific cooperation with China by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and any civilian space entity that requires government funding without approval from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Congress. The result has been the absence of any meaningful bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the United States and China in space.
The bill was passed with the intention of preventing accidental technology transfers with China. Potential theft is seen as a national security threat due to the “dual-use” nature of space technologies for both civilian and military purposes. The threat seemed especially dire because of China’s pursuit of military development in space. The primary example was a 2007 anti-satellite missile test (ASAT) in which China successfully shot down one of its own satellites, which symbolized to the United States China’s intent to develop military technologies for space.
While proponents of the amendment claim that it reduces the risk of US-China war in space, the amendment proves contrary to its own intents and actually increase the risk of war in space. Traditionally, space has been a multilateral environment. Even during the Cold War, the United States cooperated with its primary competitors, demonstrated by projects like the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in which the United States and the then Soviet Union docked an American and Russian spaceship together in order to perform scientific experiments. And, even today, cooperation in space continues to expand on other fronts. The International Space Station and ongoing satellite development between nations, such as those within the European Union and China, have signaled the international community’s intention to keep space cooperative and multilateral.
As a result, when the United States refuses to cooperate with China, it gives the impression that US policymakers do not view space as a multilateral environment. That sends a signal to China that the United States is intent on dominating space. The distinction between civilian and military space projects becomes blurred, which is exacerbated by the dual-use nature of space technology. A lack of bilateral cooperation exacerbates this already blurry distinction by preventing China from clarifying which projects are civilian through collaboration with space agencies like NASA. Therefore, China is not able to tell whether or not the United States is acting with malicious intent and they then have an incentive to further militarize space. No wonder military experts in China claim the United States is trying to become “the overlord of space.” Indeed, the development of counter-space weapons and satellite jammers by China has only continued since the passage of the amendment.
The result is a security dilemma, in which even defensive military actions are seen as offensive. In response to the United States’ perceived attempt to dominate space and the dual-use nature of space technology, China put in place more defensive measures like the ASAT missiles that partially caused the passage of the Wolf Amendment in the first place. The United States then sees China’s actions as offensive and deploys similar counter-space weapons, what they see as their own defensive measures. China then responds with even more defensive measures, which the United States sees as provocative. This causes a spiraling effect in which escalation becomes more likely.
The situation could potentially escalate into a conflict because of the rising importance of space to modern society. Countries rely on satellites and space for mapping, communications, and military command. If a country feels as if any of these space assets are vulnerable, they have an incentive to respond because otherwise they risk losing equipment essential to both a military response and the ongoing safety and function of a modern society. For example, if America feels as if their Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites are threatened or China feels the same about their BeiDou satellites, there is an impetus to respond with full force to be sure that they have a functional military infrastructure. It has become such a critical junction that there is now a hotline between the United States and China with the intention of preventing a space war if a satellite were destroyed, similar to the hotline between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War meant to prevent nuclear miscalculation.
The Wolf Amendment ultimately undermines an international culture of multilateralism in space by sowing distrust between major space superpowers, increasing the potential for misunderstandings and tensions given their lower levels of continued communication and cooperation on space-related issues. Although concerns about China stealing vital technology are valid given their record of stealing technology in other sectors, China has access to the United States’ newest space technology through their active space cooperation with US space partners like the European Space Agency. The amendment does not effectively do its job of preventing technology transfers with China and instead encourages distrust with no real benefit to the United States. The risk of a major conflict starting in space is real, and cooperation with China would help alleviate tensions through transparency and diplomacy, ensuring a better chance of a more peaceful development of humanity’s final frontier.