Why Isn’t China a Member of the ISS?

On 2 April 2018, China’s first ever prototype space station, the Tiangong-1, met its fiery end as it crashed into the South Pacific Ocean. Already a derelict spacecraft for over two years, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) officially ended service when the telemetry link with the station was lost in March 2016. The agency then lost control of the spacecraft a few months later where it slowly began its re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

The destruction of Tiangong-1 is certainly not a setback for the Chinese space programme, as its successor, Tiangong-2 is still in commission. With similar attributes to its predecessor, the Tiangong-2 is also a testbed for Chinese space technologies as the nation continues on its lofty quest to build its own space station. 

Those unfamiliar with the political world of spacefaring may wonder, why is China building its own space station when the International Space Station exists? Further reading reveals that China is not a member of the ISS programme, so a better question may be, why is China not a member? The answer, surprise surprise—is deeply rooted in geopolitics. 

In 2007, when China expressed interest to become a part of the ISS, it was met with stiff American resistance. US officials advised that China should be blocked from the ISS due to their poor human rights record as well as the prospect of China using new space technology for military purposes. Frank Wolf, a congressman from Virginia at that time, included a clause in the 2011 federal budget that prevented NASA from collaborating with Chinese space ventures, which then led to the creation of NASA’s China exclusion policy. In 2013, NASA reversed its policy but only on the condition that Chinese scientists did not represent their government in any official manner. But by then, China had already realised that it was effectively banned from the ISS. China had already moved on by launching its own space station in Tiangong-1.

One may wonder that if China was excluded from the ISS programme due to politics, why was Russia still involved? When development of the ISS began, NASA already had a close partnership with the Soviet space programme which became Roscosmos in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as their close ties had stretched as far back into 1972 with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Additionally, following the Columbia incident in 2003, due to the grounding of all American space shuttles, NASA was completely reliant on Russian shuttles. Long story short, with the ISS being a collective dominated by NASA, American political interests prevented China from becoming a member.

If the goal of American foreign policy is to eventually develop warmer relations with China, it has a missed a golden opportunity with collaborating with China in space, a region that has always been peaceful. Concurrently, officials within the American security circle should have little to worry about the Chinese stealing space technology, as it has steadily grown its space programme with little external help since 2003. And if it is an imperialist ambition that Americans are worried about China’s space pursuits, continued exclusion might not be the best decision. In fact, it might further convince China to embark on an expansionist foreign policy.

This topic has interested me recently due to a history class discussion that went off tangent. In a class on 19th Century Germany, our class had been discussing that when Bismarck became German chancellor following unification, he did a poor job due to his confrontational nature, as he was hostile to his colleagues even in policy areas where stakeholders were historically expected to be civil to be each other. The class then went off topic, and discussed policy areas today in which there is little conflict between interested actors. Examples that my classmates brought up include the Arctic region and space, as stakeholders have usually engaged in a respectful manner. And in this case, the US pushing China out of the ISS project, is an outlier in the context of space policy. 


Above Photo: An undated photo of Chinese technicians working on the Tiangong-1. (AP Photo)

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