Should China Become a Space Station Participant?

A representative of the Chinese government has expressed his country's desire to join the member nations participating in the development of the International Space Station (ISS). According to a report from the Associated Press, China sees its growing space program as a symbol of the scientific progress it has made in recent years and would like to extend its reach in space by peacefully cooperating with other countries on international efforts such as the ISS.

"We hope to take part in activities related to the International Space Station," Li Xueyong, a vice minister of science and technology said at a press conference in Beijing yesterday. "If I am not mistaken, this program has 16 countries currently involved, and we hope to be the 17th partner."

Li made his remarks on the ISS while speaking to the Chinese media about the upcoming launch of the nation's Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter, scheduled for lift-off in late October. A reporter had asked whether China in the future would be more likely to compete or cooperate with the United States in space, the AP reports. Li said China wanted to cooperate but gave no specifics.

A decision to enable China to participate in the ISS program would have to be made by the existing partners. The ISS is a joint project between the space agencies of the U.S. (NASA), Russia (RKA), Japan (JAXA), Canada (CSA), and a group of European nations (ESA), with countries such as Brazil (AEB), Italy (ISA), Malaysia (MNSA) cooperating in various contractual capacities [see last week's item "New Crew Arrives at Space Station (With Tourist)" for an example].

The AP report notes that approval from the U.S. would most likely be the major hurdle the preliminary Chinese proposal would have to clear for a deal to join the ISS partnership to be worked out. China's political status may cause the U.S. government some discomfort, but a larger irritant would be the Communist nation's recent anti-satellite missile tests, which blasted an obsolete orbiting satellite into debris back in January, a move harshly criticized by the international space community.

Li's press conference on Tuesday, timed to coincide with the opening of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, may signal a new tack in space policy by the world's largest nation.

"The Chinese government has always pursued a foreign policy of peace and consistently worked for the peaceful use of outer space," Li said at the briefing.

With the rapid progress the Chinese are making in space, it seems inevitable that they will apply to join the ISS program when conditions seem most favorable. For the U.S. and its global partners that will raise a question that may be more fraught with politics than science: Just how international is the International Space Station?

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