June 26, 1998

June 26, 1998 | Executive Summary on National Security and Defense

Commercial Space Cooperation Should Not Harm National Security

A current controversy in Washington, D.C., surrounds the possible leakage of sensitive missile technology to China during American commercial use of Chinese satellite launch services. The Clinton Administration has been quick to minimize the likelihood that China would use such missile technology or know-how to advance its military missile program. For example, on June 3, 1998, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger stated, "Satellites exported to China for launch are not used for military purposes, nor do they result in the transfer of missile technology." Yet, according to a U.S. Air Force intelligence finding approved by the Department of Defense's Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA) and reortedly issued in May 1997, U.S. missile technology and information provided to China by Space Systems/Loral in a commercial satellite launch project may have helped China improve guidance systems for its ballistic missiles. Indeed, the DTSA reportedly concluded that "United States national security has been harmed."

This controversy strongly suggests that the Clinton Administration must reassess its priorities. Its desire to improve commercial space cooperation with China has outweighed the U.S. need to promote successful arms control with China and deter China's growing military missile capabilities. Congress has begun investigating the serious security threat posed by such access to U.S. dual-use missile technology. China already may possess 18 8,000-mile-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are capable of reaching the United States; these old liquid-fueled missiles undoubtedly will be replaced by modern, solid-fueled, and highly mobile ICBMs. If information and technology gained by improvements to China's commercial space launch vehicles could be used to advance the capabilities of these military ballistic missiles, then the threat posed by these missiles to U.S. territory is much greater.

Without a national ballistic missile defense system in place, both houses of Congress are right to be concerned. The bipartisan investigations should examine a variety of issues surrounding the possible transfer of U.S. missile technology to China, such as whether revenue from commercial space cooperation in fact is subsidizing China's military missile program, and whether access to U.S.-made communications satellites is helping China's military improve its satellite communications network. Although there are concerns that campaign donors may have influenced the granting of presidential "waivers" that allow Chinese space launches of U.S. satellites in the face of sanctions, and that a Chinese aerospace official, with ties to that country's top leadership, may have helped to funnel foreign money to a U.S. political party, the most important concern for Congress today should be whether U.S. national security has been compromised.

The Clinton Administration's focus on commercial concerns is also questionable in light of its inability to convince China to sign the 1989 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which would bar China's sale of dangerous missile technology to such countries as Pakistan and Iran. The nuclear arms race between these two countries is complicated by China's assistance to Pakistan's nuclear program since the 1970s. Clearly, an emphasis on commercial space cooperation with China over arms control is the wrong approach. The Administration should place the greatest emphasis on national security issues when dealing with China. The proper strategy for U.S. relations with China should include:

  • Suspending U.S. satellite exports to China pending the outcome of congressional investigations. This would send China the message that commercial space cooperation is less important than protecting U.S. security interests.

  • Rebuilding technology export controls and a multinational military technology control regime to replace the lapsed Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls.

  • Building an effective defense against nuclear missiles in the face of an increased probability that China will build better medium- and long-range ICBMs.

  • Devising a realistic arms control strategy toward China that rewards China's compliance, not its rhetoric.

The escalating missile competition in South Asia and China's missile modernization suggest potentially serious future threats to U.S. national security. Congress is correct to investigate the possibility that there has been a transfer of U.S. missile technology and know-how to China through commercial space cooperation. Unless the Clinton Administration readjusts its priorities to place the proper weight on national security in its dealings with China, the risks to security from continued commercial space cooperation remain too high. A far better approach for the Administration to take in developing a China policy should emphasize security and deterrence over commercial cooperation in such sensitive areas as space technology.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr., is a former Senior Policy Analyst in The Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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