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Breaking the Chinese space addiction

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) recently proposed two amendments to the NASA appropriations bill to vet agency contractors for ties to the People’s Republic of China. The amendments, which the Senate Commerce Committee adopted, mandate a Government Accountability Office review of potential commercial ties of NASA contractors to China and oblige the agency’s leadership to take such PRC business connections into account when awarding new contracts.

Over the last five years, the United States has substantially reduced its reliance on Russian space technologies, companies and supplies. Now we need comparable progress regarding China. Protecting our space supply chain from Beijing’s harmful influence requires decreasing NASA’s direct and indirect connections with China. Besides restricting space-related purchases from the PRC, Congress should discourage NASA contractor ties to PRC entities as soon as practical.

China continues to expand its defense partnership with Russia, but it is also a national security threat in its own right. In his testimony to Congress last week, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray warned that, “The greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China. It is a threat to … our national security.” 

The White House has joined others in affirming that, “the United States considers the continued unfettered access to and freedom to operate in space of vital interest to advance the security, economic prosperity, and scientific knowledge of the Nation.” The U.S. defense and intelligence communities rely on space satellites for critical communications, navigation, weather, intelligence and early warning capabilities. Meanwhile, the U.S. private sector uses space to support worldwide commercial and financial transactions.

The PRC has made rapid progress in developing its crewed and robotic space programs over the past decade. In recent years, China has been launching more satellites than any other country and now has the largest satellite fleet of any country except the United states. PRC planners have unique ambitions to control lunar and other space resources.

The Chinese space program also is unique in its subordination to military control. The People’s Liberation Army owns half of all PRC satellites and can employ others as needed. In 2019, the PRC State Council Information Office described space as a “critical domain in international strategic competition.” China has accordingly been developing a range of counterspace capabilities to attack U.S. satellites and other space objects.

Another means the PRC is attacking U.S. security is by infiltrating the U.S. supply chain to expropriate commercial, scientific and technological capabilities critical for U.S. space leadership. PRC companies, universities and other entities are developing ties with their U.S. counterparts to steal their intellectual property, whose development has typically been funded partly by American taxpayers. PRC capital has been flowing into U.S. space firms, especially promising start-ups, generating major supply chain security challenges.

A recent comprehensive report notes how such ties “may be leveraged to transfer technology or important knowhow back to the PRC,” circumventing the Wolf Amendment and other congressional safeguards. In recent decades, the PRC has refined its strategy of “military-civil fusion” whereby the PLA leverages China’s seemingly benign civil and commercial activities to enhance its military intelligence and technologies. Every day, on average, the FBI launches two to three new cases against PRC-suspected commercial, cyber and security espionage against the United States. 

The Trump administration’s space cybersecurity policy directive released earlier this month instructs U.S. agencies to reduce “supply chain risks that affect cybersecurity of space systems through tracking manufactured products; requiring sourcing from trusted suppliers; identifying counterfeit, fraudulent, and malicious equipment; and assessing other available risk mitigation measures.” Congress has also restricted the transfer of sensitive aerospace technologies to China that could aid the PLA’s space capabilities. 

What has been missing from these laudable bipartisan security efforts is a complete review and audit of NASA contractors’ connections to the PRC. Lacking this information has made it difficult for U.S. agencies to follow directives to limit risks in NASA’s supply chain. Its absence has also complicated executive and legislative branch adoption of additional safeguards.

America’s reliance on Chinese supply chains represents a major security vulnerability that must be eliminated as soon as possible. To the extent that new bills, amendments and Executive Orders further that objective, they should be embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.

Tags ASAT program of China China China–United States relations Chinese space program Cory Gardner Industrial espionage NASA

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