There’s a great space debate happening over how U.S. policy toward China should be handled when the Biden administration takes office next month. Should NASA work in cooperation with China’s space agency if the other nation is willing, or should China’s progress in space be viewed as competition?

At the heart of the debate is the Wolf amendment, policy that bars NASA from working with China. Politico explains the origin of the policy in a piece exploring Biden administration space policy on China:

In 2011, former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) included an amendment in the NASA authorization bill that prohibited the space agency and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any appropriated money on cooperation with China. If either agency wanted to work with China, it had to seek a specific exception from the FBI, which would have to certify that there were no risks to sharing information and that none of the Chinese officials involved had committed human rights abuses.

Wolf retired from Congress in 2015, but the language is included in each year’s appropriations bills, including the fiscal 2020 spending bill for the space agency.

This policy is being cited for China’s lack of interest in sharing its recent lunar collection sample with the United States. The New York Times reported on the status of the ban last week:

“Obviously the United States prohibits cooperation with China, no?” said Xiao Long, a scientist at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, who has advised the Chinese space program. “It certainly does not hope that China develops quickly. They have already put their cards on the table. It is not something that is being done quietly.”

At a talk on Tuesday to the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development organization, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, addressed the prospect of relaxing the ban on NASA-China cooperation.

“It’s above my pay grade,” Mr. Bridenstine said. “But certainly, I do believe NASA is a tool of diplomacy. I believe that asset is a tool that can be used as, for example, a pot sweetener for a trade deal. I think it can be used for all kinds of purposes for international diplomacy.”

So what happens next? A change in policy would need to come from the top of the incoming administration, as Bridenstine alludes, but there doesn’t seem to be an appetite in Congress to reject the Wolf amendment altogether.

Instead, it’s more likely we could see the policy that bars the U.S. from working with China on space loosened to focus on intellectual property and not scientific discovery. Meanwhile, we should expect to see cooperation in space used as a bargaining chip in greater policy decisions between the two nations despite what greater scientific community cooperation could offer.

Read both pieces for a better understanding of the risks of inaction and challenges facing any policy changes proposed by the incoming administration.

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