Barely had the Long March 3B triumphantly returned to flight than China became embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with the United States – one heralding a long period of difficult relations that persists to the present. In June 1998, the House of Representatives voted 409:10 to set up a nine-strong special committee to investigate the transfer of space technology to China and appointed as chairperson California Republican Christopher Cox. The investigation arose from rising concerns that China had taken advantage of its contacts with the American space industry to acquire information useful for the construction and targeting of ballistic missiles and specifically that the satellite companies had insufficiently protected their satellites in transit to the launch pad. Hughes satellites used advanced technology arrays that could be used for electronic signals gathering, so there was perceived to be a high risk of technology transfer.
The setting-up of the investigation prompted bitter but largely inconclusive debates in Washington. Strictly speaking, the debate revolved around whether China was engaged in spying, obtaining classified information, applying it to an aggressive military rocket program, and compromising security-slack American companies in the process. In practice, the debate was a proxy for a broader political debate about American pohcy towards China and whether that should be one of containment (as it was prior to 1972), one of varying degrees of engagement (as it was under Nixon, Reagan, and Bush), or one of hostihty and confrontation. To complicate matters further, American commercial launcher companies stood to gain from the revoking of satellite export licenses to China. By contrast, the satellite manufacturers wished to deliver satellites on orbit to their customers at the lowest possible price: Chinese prices were much lower – but their lobby was quite weak in comparison. The picture was unusually partisan, for launcher companies were reported to make campaign donations to the Republicans and the satellite companies to the Democrats. From 1994, President Clinton had faced a hostile Republican Congress under Newt Gingrich which eventually impeached him. In the mid-1990s, the Republicans ran a spectacularly successful campaign to reshape China policy – one which endures to the present .
Cox’s report was massive, with 11 chapters covering missiles, satellites, computers, industry, and insurance. He painted a lurid picture of malevolent Chinese espionage going back to the day Tsien Hsue Shen fled the United States for Communist China, allegedly with American rocket blueprints. Although Tsien Hsue Shen had never been convicted of spying, Cox now determined that the charges against him were true. According to Cox, the Chinese had used, over decades and in a systematic way, fair means and foul, neutral scientific conferences, licensing arrangements, dual use military-civilian technologies, and straightforward spying to ferret out information on nuclear technology, computers, rockets, submarines, and atomic bombs. The satellite companies were attacked for exceeding the terms of their export licenses and carelessly giving away information that would enable China to improve the guidance systems of ballistic missiles – “treachery”, according to one congressman. In trying to fix the fairing failure that had caused the loss of the two CZ-2E rockets, the company concerned (Hughes) gave the Chinese information and advice that would help them in the development of warheads. When the Long March 3B exploded, the Chinese kept the Americans away from the crash site for five hours while they ransacked the American debris, stealing the encrypted chips on
Preparing a satellite for launch at Xi Chang. It was at this stage that the Americans believed that it was vulnerable to interference. Courtesy: US Congress.
the lost Intelsat 708, so it was alleged. Even though the Cox report was full of inaccuracies and errors, the inflammatory charges stuck.
The Cox report relied heavily on the “dual-use” argument, which was that information obtained for legitimate civilian purposes could equally be used for military: rocket guidance systems designed to put comsats in the right orbit could equally target nuclear warheads, for example. The concept of dual use is something which the Chinese understand. During the debate on the adoption of the manned space program, when arguments raged about whether China should prioritize military development or civilian science, Deng Xiaoping intervened to argue that technology should serve both. Such dialectical solutions to political problems were not uncharacteristic of the leadership, but did not necessarily mean a systematic campaign to obtain such technologies from abroad by deception.
Even before the report was published, the Congress made up its mind. It did not ban the export of satellites to China outright but, reclassifying them as munitions of war, transferred responsibility for their licensing from the Department of Commerce to the Department of State, to ensure that defense considerations were uppermost in licensing decisions, rather than trade. Comsats were put on what was called the United States Munitions List (USML), making them weapons of war and unexportable, later systematized as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The congressional decisions nevertheless had the politically desired effect of slowing satellite trade with China to a standstill. The Department of State did not have sufficient officials to process export licenses, so approvals slowed to waiting periods of 18 months or more, making flying satellites on Chinese launchers an unattractive proposition. Any export worth over $50m to China also had to get congressional approval in any case. Three Western satellites were still manifested to fly on the Long March at this stage and their customers quickly understood that if they were going to reach orbit, it would not be via China. The Long March 3B missions in 1997 were the last Western communications satellites launched by China
The main pad at Xi Chang. The Cox report effectively grounded the use of China’s launchers for commercial Western satellites. Courtesy: Cindy Liu.
for some time and the Long March 2E was never used again. The two satellite manufacturers, Hughes and Loral, were pursued through the courts and put under extreme pressure to admit liability, and they eventually made settlements with the Department of Defense. In the aftermath, Hughes, which went as far back as Howard Hughes in 1934, was taken over by Boeing and Loral bankrupted.
The Cox report had a long-term, venomous effect on American-Chinese relations. When the world space congress took place in Houston, Texas, in October 2002, the American government barred half the Chinese representatives from attending, either refusing visas or putting other bureaucratic obstacles in their way. Those who did attend were searched or closely followed by a dozen FBI agents hired to mind them. The head of the Chinese delegation, Luan Enjie, the director of the China National Space Administration, was left stranded on the Canadian border, forlornly awaiting a visa, and eventually returned home. It got worse. Allegations were made that China was a serial proliferator to hostile governments, such as North Korea, lased American satellites so as to blind them, and even mounted a cyberattack on NASA so as to exfiltrate data on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. According to the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, Chinese spying was extensive. The Great Wall Industry Company was sanctioned in 2006 for supplying equipment to Iran, these sanctions being eventually lifted in summer 2008. Its assets were frozen by the US federal government and it was forbidden from doing business with American companies. The lifting of the sanctions followed commitments to monitor its trading activities more closely and not to have any dealings with countries considered prohferation risks, like Iran.
The impact of Cox became evident in so many ways. When China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, visited the United States in 2004, he did so as a private guest and NASA could have no formal contact with him. In February 2008, a 72-year-old Californian and Rockwell engineer, Dongfan Chong, was indicted for passing technical information about the Shuttle to China, even though it was an unclassified program dating to the early 1970s. When the Chinese approached NASA about the possibility of having some experiments fly on the International Space Station (ISS), one leading congressman was having none of it and was quoted by the press as saying that he would not tolerate “a bunch of Nazis running around our space station”. When NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe was later asked about cooperation with China, he told journalists that he was happy to cooperate, but, he added stiffly, was bound by the rules laid down by the State Department.
The main consequences for China were not a highly visible diplomatic and media exchange, but commercial. As a result of the tighter export restrictions, a series of customers walked with their satellites, such as Atlantic Bird and Protostar, simply because they had American components. The Cox report had the desired effect: Chinese revenues from launching satellites fell from $148m in 1997 to $23m in 1999 and nil for each year 2000-05 in a global market worth between $1 bn in a weak year and $2.7bn in a good one .
One commercial area was spared. China was successful in 1995 in negotiating a deal with the Motorola corporation. It booked a series of Long March 2C launches to low Earth orbit for 22 of its revolutionary new global communications system of
Iridium satellites (the full system was 66 satellites). Iridium was a mobile phone system that by-passed masts, messages being passed on from one low-flying satelhte to another until it was downloaded to the appropriate point on the far side of the world. The actual phone, though, was quite large at a time when ordinary mobile phones were fitting into ever-smaller pockets.
The Long March 2C was adapted with a special dispenser (SD) for the Iridium system, able to launch Iridiums in pairs, and was renamed the CZ-2C-SD. Over 1997-9, China launched its Long March 2C-SDs six times, putting into orbit 12 Iridiums from Taiyuan. Everything went completely smoothly – until the Iridium project collapsed in bankruptcy in 1999. Ironically, granted the political exchanges over security, the Chinese-launched satellites were then taken over by the Department of Defense for its military communications network. Iridium’s other legacy was visual: although the Iridium satellites were not particularly large (between 650 and 670 kg in mass), they had a big solar panel, which, as it turned in orbit, created a bright 3-4-sec flash frequently visible from the ground in evening skies to astronomers and casual skywatchers. They became known as “Iridium flares” and watching them has amused many an amateur astronomer. The launches in the series are Usted in Table 5.4.
Table 5.4. Iridium series.
Demonstration Iridium 42, 44 Iridium 51, 61 Iridium 69, 71 Iridium 3, 76
Iridium 11 A, 20A Iridium 14A, 21A
All on CZ-2C-SD from Taiyuan.
The see-saw battle over China policy continued unabated between the White House and the Congress. Neither NASA nor the American scientific community had a particular axe to grind with China, while the international partners of the United States in space exploration did not share the same problems of doing business with China.
As far back as 1997, astronauts Shannon Lucid and Jerry Ross had visited China, but it was a private visit to a scientific conference. In the period immediately after Cox, anything more would have been impossible. The first NASA visit to China, which followed persistent Chinese invitations, came in September 2006, led by NASA administrator Michael Griffin. The six-person delegation included the head of space operations, William Gerstenmaier, and, for the second time, astronaut and Mir veteran Shannon Lucid, who had been born in and spent some of her youth in
Shanghai. Their five-day itinerary included space facilities in Beijing (the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and the Beijing National Satellite Meteorological Centre) and Shanghai (Academy of Sciences Technical and Physical Research Institute, inspecting Chang e instruments) and originally included Jiuquan launch center (but the Americans declined when they learned they could only see the launch pads). The visit was permitted by the White House and State Department on the basis that it was exploratory, focused on scientific cooperation, and that discussion on participation in the ISS was off-limits (as a result, there was no visit to manned spaceflight facilities). Even then, there was congressional criticism of the visit to “an enemy”. The only concrete result was an agreement on data sharing from the forthcoming lunar missions of both sides, the Chang e and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. A second meeting took place two years later in July 2008 at deputy director level, where they agreed to establish a working group on Earth science.
Prospects for reconciliation brightened when Barrack Obama became president in January 2009, although it was clear from the start that both commercialization and the ISS would be off-limits – there simply was not the congressional support for either. On 22nd September 2009, two American astronauts, Fred Gregory and Tom Hendricks, visited China, to be entertained by astronauts Yang Liwei and Zhai Zhigang and others in training. The visit was organized by the non-governmental Space Foundation, thereby avoiding political comphcations for the administration. The American group was brought to visit CAST and was shown, in assembly, Tiangong, Shenzhou 8, and Chang e 2.
In November 2009, President Barack Obama signed an agreement with President Hu Jintao in Beijing formally agreeing cooperation in space science, human spaceflight, and space exploration. In October 2010, NASA administrator Charles Bolden visited China, followed by an industry delegation organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Bolden was welcomed inside the control center in Jiuquan, not reached by Griffin. Later, in summer 2011, the Obama administration sent proposals to the Congress for a unified licensing regime to operate through the Department of Commerce – one that would include commercial satellites and ultimately make it easier for satellites to fly on Chinese launchers.
Relations with China nose-dived once more in spring 2011 when congressman Frank Wolf, chairperson of the house committee for commerce, justice, and science, successfully inserted an amendment into the federal budget to ban all contact between NASA and the Chinese.1 He had long gone on the record as saying that
The text is: None of the funds made available may be used for NASA or the Office of Science and Technology to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactment of this devision. The limitation shall also apply to funds used to effectuate the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA (minor editing for purposes of brevity).
NASA had no business cooperating with China. President Obama signed the budget because negotiations on it had proved extremely problematical and led to a stand-off between the Congress and the White House that went right to the wire, with the federal government coming to within hours of closing down. The Wolf clause, as it was called, not only prohibited NASA from any collaboration with China or Chinese companies, but prevented the use of funds to host Chinese visitors at NASA facilities. An immediate consequence was that Chinese journalists, who had arrived at Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour with an experiment that included Chinese scientist Samuel Ting, were sent packing. Ting was a Nobel physics prize winner and a contributor the Alpha Magnetic spectrometer being launched by Endeavour, one of the most ambitious scientific projects on the ISS.