Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: The Wolf Amendment (Limiting Collaboration with China in Space)

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

In 2011, Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) introduced what is now commonly referred to as the Wolf Amendment into the annual commerce, justice, and science (CJS) appropriations bill. This amendment limits U.S. government agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), from working with Chinese commercial or government agencies. Although Rep Wolf retired in 2014, the amendment has perpetuated and continues to be included in the annual CJS appropriations bill. Though the amendment does not prohibit all collaboration between the two countries, the result has proven to be a significant hindrance to bilateral civil space projects. Keeping the Wolf Amendment language is in every sense a bad idea: it does nothing to promote human rights and it hands China an opportunity to challenge NASA’s leadership in civil space exploration.

The language of the Wolf Amendment says that no government funding for NASA, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), or the National Space Council can be used to collaborate with, host, or coordinate bilaterally with China or Chinese-owned companies without certification from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). The FBI must certify that there is no risk of information sharing and that none of the Chinese officials involved have been determined by the United States to have direct involvement with violations of human rights. In a 2013 letter to former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Representative Wolf stated his “efforts to limit new collaboration with China until we see improvements in its human rights records.”

However, in the eight years since the first iteration of this amendment, the U.S. has not seen the desired changes in Chinese human rights policies that the Wolf Amendment was intended to spur. And during that time, China’s economy, global influence, and space capabilities have continued to grow. Being left out of U.S.-led international missions has not deterred China in space, but instead has pushed China to develop parallel capabilities on its own. Without a way to contribute to the International Space Station (ISS), China began development and testing its own modular space station. China launched the Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space laboratories in 2011 and 2016, respectively, as testbeds for a permanent space station. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has announced that the permanent Chinese Space Station (CSS) should be fully operational by the year 2022.

With the ISS slated for retirement in 2024, other countries that want a long-term human presence in low Earth orbit may be lured into partnering with China on the CSS. Combined with a growing commercial space sector in China that promises to offer frequent launches at lucrative prices to foreign entities, China is positioning itself to be the partner nation of choice for future space exploration missions. As NASA enters into a new era of exploration with its Moon-to-Mars projects, it is touting international collaboration as an integral part of its plans. The Artemis and Lunar Gateway programs are working to establish partnerships with Canada, Australia, the European Space Agency, Japan, and possibly Russia. Closing China off from cooperating in these projects could be a strategic mistake.

Both NASA and CNSA share a common goal of exploring the moon for scientific purposes—as is evident by China’s Chang’e 4 rover that landed on the far side of the moon this year. NASA cooperated with CNSA to monitor the landing of the Chinese rover—the first major act of cooperation between the two space agencies in eight years. CNSA provided the planned location and time of the landing, and NASA observed the lander and shared the images that were produced. NASA was able to cooperate on this mission because it certified to Congress that this activity “did not pose a risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data or other information…with China; and [did] not involve knowing interactions with officials who have been determined by the U.S. to have direct involvement with violations of human rights”. To ensure no private data sharing between the two nations, they agreed that any significant findings would be shared globally. This cooperation was a benefit for both space agencies, and although conducted as a one-time informal agreement, it could set precedent for continued cooperation between these two major space powers. Information sharing, even in small instances, can start to build confidence and trust and ultimately could be a tool used to prevent or de-escalate future conflicts in space.

Collaborating with non-allied countries in space is not a foreign concept for NASA. In the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet space agencies agreed to work together. President Eisenhower pursued these cooperative initiatives in early letters to Soviet leadership to showcase the peaceful uses of space. Collaborating on missions like the Apollo-Soyuz test project and later the Shuttle-Mir program helped propel human space exploration and established a mutually beneficial area of cooperation and communication between the two rivals. This collaboration proved invaluable for both countries in understanding the capabilities and organization of each other’s civil space agencies, and it continues today on the ISS.

As China grows as a space power, U.S. cooperation in selected civil space projects could be one of the best ways to understand the goals and capabilities of the Chinese space agency. Moreover, it would establish avenues of communication and trust between the two nations that could be mutually beneficial in the future. The Wolf Amendment’s statutory exclusion of U.S. – Chinese bilateral cooperation in space has only incentivized China to accelerate its space development programs, creating a serious challenger to U.S. leadership in this vital domain of exploration. History has shown that when the U.S. cooperates with foreign competitors in civil space projects, it enhances NASA’s leadership role. The Wolf Amendment has neither discouraged Chinese space ambitions or altered China’s behavior on human rights—it has only muddled our relationship with China and created an opening for a challenger to NASA’s leadership role in space exploration. The provisions of the Wolf Amendment are not needed to protect technology transfer and only serve to stifle mutually beneficial cooperation for science and exploration. It is time to stop howling at the thought of cooperating with China for exploration missions to the Moon and revise the Wolf Amendment. 

(Photo Credit: NASA)