Top NASA officials took advantage of the recent gathering of space agency chiefs in Washington to look for ways to broaden cooperation with China, including rare direct talks with Chinese space leaders.

More than 30 agency heads met under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and the International Academy of Astronautics Jan. 9-10 to discuss deep-space exploration. The multilateral setting allowed representatives of the U.S. space agency to speak to their Chinese counterparts without violating the U.S. law that forbids cooperation in space between the two countries.

The law was drafted by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) on national security and human rights grounds. But NASA has cooperated with China on space projects in the past, and Administrator Charles Bolden visited China’s human-spaceflight launch site on an official tour that he was unable to reciprocate after Wolf’s law was enacted as a provision of a NASA appropriations measure.

“We are looking for ways in time to find different ways we can be a partner to them,” Bolden said at the end of the heads-of-agency meeting. “Human spaceflight is not something that’s going to happen with U.S. [and] China in the foreseeable future, because we are forbidden from doing that by law, so let’s just get that out there … That’s not going to change; not today, anyway.”

Wolf, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA funding, has said he will not seek re-election this year.

Bolden noted that China is already among the 80-plus nations that “participate” in International Space Station activities, including the cutting-edge science program represented by the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Launched on the final space shuttle mission, the AMS uses Chinese superconducting magnets as part of its search for evidence of dark matter from its perch atop the ISS starboard truss. However, it is unlikely that China — which is working toward assembly of its own Mir-class space station in 2018-22 — will be invited to join the ISS partnership of NASA and the space agencies of Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe. Nor will India or other spacefaring nations not already in the partnership become ISS partners.

None of the existing station partners wants to reopen the treaties that set up the partnership to allow new members in, according to Bolden. Drafting them was “painful,” the NASA administrator said, and “nobody wants to do that again.” However, “each member organization is encouraged to reach out and involve other nations as participants,” he told reporters.

Two Chinese space agencies attended the Washington summit – the China National Space Administration (CNSA), a civilian organization that deals primarily with robotic missions, and the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), a branch of the People’s Liberation Army that controls the Shenzhou crew vehicles and the Tiangong space station development. Bolden met with Xu Dazhe, the newly named CNSA administrator, but not Wang Zhaoyao, director general of the CMSA.