Excluding China Does Not Make America Stronger
Failed space diplomacy between the U.S. and China may alter the future of space exploration.
By Rebecca Schembri
Science Communicator @rebeccafromreno
Imagine that you just turned twenty-one. You excel in math and science and win a full scholarship to study aerospace engineering at MIT. Soon, Caltech recruits you to build rockets at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both MIT and Caltech offer you tenure, and your talent becomes so well-known that the U.S. government asks you to join a secret military operation. You accept because you are loyal to America. You spend the next years as a decorated veteran and leading American rocket and nuclear scientist.
But then cancel culture destroyed everything you had worked for. You lost your job, your prestige, your clearance, your dignity, and your freedom as overnight your colleagues and your country turned on you.
What was your crime? Being Chinese in 1949. Your name was Dr. Qian Xuesen, and because of this persecution, one day you would become the father of China’s space program.
As a social science graduate from Harvard University, I want to bring you a story of failed space diplomacy. This failure between two countries is so grave that the future of space exploration may be altered for generations to come. My job as a space diplomat is to inform you, our leaders, and our policymakers that we have a problem.
Today I want to discuss Dr. Qian Xuesen. I also want to discuss a law called the Wolf Amendment. And I want to discuss today’s moon race between the U.S. and China and how — as it escalates — it poses a danger to everyone on Earth.
The story about Dr. Qian Xuesen is true. He was fundamental in America’s space program and the Manhattan Project during World War II. But when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, American officials without evidence accused Qian of communist espionage, imprisoned him, and held him indefinitely. Qian — resolved to forget America forever, finally returned to his birth country where he trained China’s next generation of aerospace engineers. But Dr. Qian’s loyalty to communist China came only after America had disgraced him. This made China stronger.
It would not be the only time the U.S. failed at international diplomacy with China. In 2011 the United States passed a law called the Wolf Amendment. Designed to prevent espionage, this law prohibits NASA from working with China on space missions and it bans China from the International Space Station and the Artemis moon program.
In response, China launched its own space station and separate missions to the moon and Mars. And China invited all the world to participate. Now, U.S. and global space companies are forced to pick a side, with many of them opting for Chinese partnerships that offer lower prices in an international market. Instead of making America stronger, the U.S. ban on Chinese collaboration made China stronger.
Today U.S. and Chinese officials admit that our two countries are in a dangerous race to territorialize the moon. Each time the U.S. flexes its space technology muscles, China responds in kind. As a result, China is growing in space power, and the probability that space will soon become militarized and weaponized is real. The U.S. exclusion of China from the Artemis moon program made China stronger.
Although American policymakers argue that China cannot be trusted, I argue that it is our treatment of China that has made China harder to trust, and that has turned China into our greatest space competitor.
Many scholars, including myself, believe that the U.S. persecution of Dr. Qian Xuesen was a mistake. We also believe that the Wolf Amendment was a mistake. And we believe that the U.S. moon race against China is a mistake.
A wise person once said that unjust peace is far better than righteous war. The United States may fundamentally disagree with how China does things, but excluding China from space collaboration will not make America stronger. It may even lead to a righteous war that we will pay for with lives, infrastructure, and generational wealth.
Today I urge you to think like a diplomat. Diplomats de-polarize international relations. Diplomats seek peace, even if it is unjust. We acknowledge that both sides are right. We give in whenever possible, and we apologize when necessary. China is not our enemy. China is a country that is trying to do its best. We must believe this.
Our children’s children, both American and Chinese, some of whom will become astronauts and space travelers themselves, are depending on us to leave them a better planet.
Rebecca Schembri graduated from Harvard University in Social Science and Space Diplomacy.
She is from Reno, Nevada, USA.
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