As China prepares for another launch to its Tiangong-1 mini-space station next month (illustration), political scientists with an interest in space policy see the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) as a model for bringing China into “the family of space-faring nations.” The ASTP was a symbolic gesture that encouraged an eventual Cold War thaw, and was considered as such even before the historic “handshake in space” between the crews of a U.S. Apollo command module and a Soviet Soyuz capsule.

The docking had little technical significance, but it laid the groundwork for a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations that extended into strategic arms control and ultimately led to the merger of the two superpowers' space station programs that became the International Space Station.

“It's a beginning, like the arms control thing,” President Richard Nixon said of the space-cooperation agreement he and Premier Alexei Kosygin signed at their May 1972 summit meeting. U.S. historian John Logsdon discovered the quote on one of Nixon's infamous Oval Office tapes as he was researching the former president's role in U.S. space policy.

“With respect to space, Richard Nixon was a pretty strong internationalist from the start,” Logsdon says. “He suggested, as John Kennedy had suggested in his inaugural address, that space was an area where countries could cooperate.”

That thinking is definitely in force today, as U.S. astronauts take turns with cosmonauts and space travelers from Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency in commanding the ISS. But China, the only other nation to orbit its own crews, is blocked by U.S. law from even visiting the station.

The U.S. and China are forbidden to cooperate in civil space on human-rights grounds, by language Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) attached to NASA's appropriations bill. Military space cooperation between the two nations is actually easier, to the extent that the Pentagon's Africa Command has been using Chinese-owned Apstar-7 for commercial communications links.

That arrangement raised congressional eyebrows when it surfaced at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, but it illustrates the kind of cooperation U.S.-China experts convened by the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, say could ease tensions and improve U.S. leadership in space.

“U.S. restrictions on working with China in space are coming across as the U.S. is a bit of the mean girl in the international space community, as though we think we can just decide who is in the clique and who is not,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval War College, who stressed that she was expressing her own opinion as an academic.

Most of NASA's partners on the ISS support a larger role for China there, and do not have limits on their ability to cooperate with Beijing's space establishment. And even with U.S. opposition, China is not completely barred. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which detects and counts subatomic particles arriving at its perch on the station from deep space, includes large magnets produced in China, notes Stimson panelist Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation.

Weeden suggests space weather monitoring could be a “good place to start” an active program of U.S.-Chinese civil space cooperation, since it would continue lower-level, multi-national cooperation already under way and be mutually beneficial.

Addressing the threat China poses to U.S. national security, James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School noted that testing by China and the U.S. of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons has raised issues of space security unseen since the orbital nuclear testing of 1958-62. Moltz compared the U.S.-Chinese relationship in space to the one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “Fortunately, this path was eventually averted,” he says. “We signed the ABM Treaty. We signed the SALT I agreement that banned interference with national technical means. We moved forward with space science cooperation, and we flew the Apollo-Soyuz mission.”

Just as the U.S. is unwilling to cooperate with China in space, the People's Liberation Army that controls Chinese human spaceflight also has also been reluctant to engage in substantive dialogue on the subject, Moltz says. Secrecy surrounding the U.S. X-37B reusable spaceplane has raised Chinese suspicions, he says, just as Chinese industrial espionage raise U.S. concerns. Nonetheless, China has displayed some wiggle room in semi-official discussions about space weaponry, including a possible ban on ground-based ASAT tests, Moltz says, and there is a chance deeper discussions could pay off.

Possible areas of fruitful military-to-military talks include space situational awareness “because of our shared interest in reducing space debris,” and providing greater transparency into the systems that provide it.

“We don't have a crisis kind of hotline where we can engage them in case of very high-risk short-notice events,” he says, adding that the bilateral agenda should include work toward non-interference with reconnaissance and signals-intelligence spacecraft, which served well in the U.S.-Soviet relationship.