China has been violating human rights, stealing intellectual property, and using technology developed by the United States and other nations for years. And while compared to the U.S., China's space industry is still in its early stages, the Department of Homeland Security maintains that China is now striving to get ahead by stealing military space technology to advance its international dominance.
Senator Joe Biden asserted in the 1990s and early 2000s that embracing China into the global trading system would compel Beijing to play by international rules. In 2000, Biden voted to extend permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to China, arguing that the move would benefit American workers. He contended that an annual review of China's trade status was an empty threat that no longer served a purpose. Biden went so far as to declare that China's leaders, after being forced to acknowledge the failure of communism, had consciously undertaken a fundamental transformation of the communist system that had "condemned their great people to isolation, poverty, and misery." He elaborated by saying, "I believe China is changing. China is far from the kind of country that we want it to be, or that its own long-suffering citizens are now working to build. But no single snapshot of unsafe working conditions, of religious and political repression, of bellicose pronouncements about Taiwan, will do justice to the fundamental shifts that are underway in China." The clarity of his message is debatable.
Steve Ricchetti, a current advisor to Biden, helped organize the PNTR effort 20 years ago as deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. The bill passed 83-15 and secured China's entry into the World Trade Organization, and solidified the communist regime's global economic ties.
There is no question that the massive growth in trade between China and the United States had a profound and negative effect on U.S. workers and the economy. Global trade in high-level technology products, which was frequently discussed as advantageous for the United States, fell under China's control. This included nuclear technology, more advanced elements of computer and electronic technology, and aerospace technology. Many critics of PNTR rightly claimed that it would not benefit the U.S. worker but would instead lead to significant job losses. They also correctly questioned whether China would comply with the trade agreement.
Due to growing security concerns, in 2011 Congress banned NASA from conducting any joint scientific collaboration with China, claiming it was stealing technology from every major U.S. company: "They have taken technology from NASA, and they have hit the NSF computers . . . You name the company, and the Chinese are trying to get its secrets." Still, China continued to organize and develop information warfare and cyber espionage capabilities to serve its efforts to destroy the playing field with America.
One such endeavor came to light in December 2018, when the Justice Department charged two Chinese hackers with operating a 12-year CCP-sponsored campaign to steal data from at least 45 U.S. companies or government agencies, including NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center. According to a 2019 Pentagon report, China continues to implement "cyber theft" and other methods to reinforce its military, which is expected to have continued rapid growth.
Indeed, military space technology theft was averted by Federal agents in August 2020 with the arrest of 33-year-old Chinese national Pengyi Li at the Honolulu International Airport as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong. Li possessed a bag of export-controlled electronics. He believed they had come from rogue U.S. brokers, but they were actually part of an undercover sting operation. Li's arrest was the culmination of a two-year investigation into an effort to smuggle sensitive components used in spacecraft and missiles out of the U.S. and into China.
This matters because even though China has a burgeoning space program, much of its space hardware is produced by state-owned enterprises connected to the military. The country still relies on the commercial use of a Boeing-built satellite to communicate with military bases in the South China Sea. In particular, missile technology is key to Beijing's plan to deter U.S. armed forces, which could explain its pursuit of technology related to space vehicles and the kinds of remote-sensing devices needed to deploy them effectively.
Currently, the U.S., China, Russia (and now India) have the technology to wage war in outer space. Each has successfully destroyed a satellite in orbit, which is achieved using a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapon. A DA-ASAT is essentially a ballistic missile with its own guidance system positioned on top that is launched from the ground. Once at orbital speeds, kinetic energy destroys the satellite without the use of explosives.
The U.S. and Russia achieved this phenomenal accomplishment in the 1980s. China conducted its first successful DA-ASAT experiment in 2007, which was widely condemned throughout the international space community because it produced a potentially hazardous cloud of nearly 3,000 pieces of debris that were large enough to be tracked by NASA (including several thousand more pieces of debris that were too small to see) in a heavily used belt of Earth's orbit. This is significant because even tiny pieces of debris can be dangerous for the International Space Station or other satellites.
And now, despite the decades-long economic fallout that followed Biden’s support of PNTR in 2000, and China’s current acceleration of stealing American technology for military objectives, top advisers to Joe Biden have maintained that a limited space agreement between the United States and Beijing could decrease tensions between the two nations and create a more stabilized space race. This has raised concerns for many.
It is worth pointing out that NASA's recent Artemis Accords establish general and peaceful guidelines for exploring the moon, Mars, asteroids, and comets. The rules include principles for helping astronauts in distress, sharing scientific data, and mining space resources sustainably. They were signed on Oct. 13, 2020, by eight national space agencies: United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates. Ukraine and Brazil signed it later in 2020. Notably absent were Russia and China.
As previously noted, NASA cannot collaborate with China since Congress banned the agency from doing so in 2011. It is not clear whether the Artemis Accords will speed up China's unprecedented race for space dominance.