“Things don’t go swimmingly on [Earth] . . . but in space they do.” That is how the Biden Administration’s NASA director, Bill Nelson, framed his great dream of seeing the United States cooperate with Communist China in space. Incredibly, despite insisting that he fully understands the threat China poses to America’s hard-won position in space, Nelson has continued chirping in public his tired refrain about wishing for China and the United States to cooperate in space.
When asked for a greater explanation about this strange yearning, Nelson spoke of the previous era of Soviet, and then Russian and American, cooperation in space. Yet, the Russians only ever cooperated in space after the Americans had decisively beaten them in the race to the moon. Moscow maintained its close ties with Washington in space after Russia was hobbled by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And even then, the cooperation between the two Cold War rivals was limited and would not have averted conflict between the USSR and United States had an actual war erupted between the two superpowers.
Nelson’s vision of a united Sino-American mission in space is misguided, but he can’t help himself. Nelson belongs to the utopian school of space policy experts who believe that if only America would refuse to actively defend, preserve, and even enhance its dominance in space then it will somehow inspire all countries to seek greater cooperation with Washington in space development (and in other areas).
It’s the kind of vision that Gene Roddenberry had for the original “Star Trek.” Sadly, that vision does not comport with the way the world really works. Space, like the land, sea, air, and cyberspace, is just another strategic domain in which humanity will compete for dominance. Pretending like it can be something else is a fantasy that only American elites, such as Bill Nelson, could ever truly believe.
Nelson’s track record in seeking an accommodation with China in space is a long one. For example, in 2003, when China made history by becoming only the third nation, behind the United States and the former Soviet Union, to place their personnel—known as taikonauts—into Earth orbit, then-Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) giddily phoned Beijing to offer his congratulations. During that call, an excited Nelson explained to his Chinese counterpart how he envisioned a joint Chinese-American mission to Mars. This, of course, mortified some American policymakers at the time and thankfully did not get far. Yet, the delusion remained throughout Nelson’s Senate career and has carried over to his time at NASA.
China’s leaders probably were equally excited about Nelson’s call. After all, the technology that undergirds a national space program can also be used to enhance a nation’s advantages in war. Thus, China’s leaders have long favored some form of cooperation with the United States and its allies in space, if only as a means to gain access to advanced American technology that Beijing otherwise would have difficulty acquiring. Essentially, any joint space mission would become the world’s greatest technology transfer from the United States to the People’s Republic of China.
In the two decades since China’s first spacewalk, Beijing has achieved greatness in space—at the expense of the indolent Americans and their allies. Today, China’s space capabilities rival America’s . . . and may soon surpass ours. Should Nelson get his wish, China would displace the United States as the dominant space power.
Recently, Beijing announced an ambitious five-year plan not only to stay competitive with their American rivals but to leapfrog them. China’s plans include everything from expanded satellite and space launch services that would put Beijing in the driver’s seat of the rapidly growing space industry, to a science fiction-sounding “planetary defense network” that is meant to deflect potential asteroids away from Earth (but that will most certainly be used by Beijing to threaten their rivals with bombardment from orbit). The incredible five-year plan would be capped off with the construction of a permanent lunar colony built by China and Russia as a means of dominating the Earth-Moon system.
In fact, when Beijing announced its five-year plan for space dominance by the end of this decade, reports surfaced that Nelson was sad. Not because China looked to be about to surpass the Americans in the strategic high ground of space under his watch. Instead, Nelson told Newsweek he “wished China was a partner with [America in space]”! Now that Nelson holds the most powerful position in America’s space policy community, he will be able to direct and influence U.S. space policy toward his overarching goal of “peaceful cooperation” with Beijing in space.
But, of course, Beijing is uninterested in “peaceful cooperation” with Washington in space. China wants national dominance of space to control the Earth below. Should Bill Nelson’s China vision prevail, it would destroy America’s dominant role in space and cede it to China—just as Biden is ceding the Middle East, Europe, and Asia to American foes today.
If Nelson has his way, the United States would surely become a vassal state in China’s new global empire. David P. Goldman has long cautioned that the United States risks becoming “Greeks in China’s new Roman Empire.” That’s where we’re headed under Nelson and Biden. In Washington, “personnel is policy,” and Joe Biden has selected people to run his administration who fundamentally—willfully—misunderstand China’s threat to the United States. Eventually, we will all be made to pay for these misunderstandings and misrepresentations by the Biden Administration.