President Barack Obama has made another overture of likely strategic significance to China, which could be a new landmark in moves to strengthen the strategic partnership between the two countries. This step has been taken despite the differences between the US and China on tactical issues such as the continued US sales of arms to Taiwan, US contacts with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, open expression of US concerns over China's naval assertiveness in the South China Sea and the US demand for the release of Liu Xiaobo, who has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The new overture relates to possible Sino-US co-operation in manned spaceflights. An agreement in principle to initiate exploratory talks on this subject had been reached during Obama's visit to China in November,2009. According to the Global Times of China (October 15, 2010), in pursuance of this agreement, an eight-member team of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headed by Charles Bolden, its chief who is designated as Administrator, is visiting China from October 16 for talks with their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese are taking the US team on a visit to their space establishments which handle manned flights.
According to the Global Times, some Congressional members including Frank Wolf and John Culberson, both Republicans, have cautioned Bolden that space-exploration cooperation with China has not been approved by the Congress and that bills authorizing NASA research have placed strict limitations on such cooperation with China. In a letter replying to their objection to his proposed visit, Bolden is reported to have stated as follows: "The visit is intended to be introductory in nature and will not include consideration of any specific proposals for human space-flight cooperation or new cooperation in any other areas of NASA's activities. I have also been invited to conduct site visits to Chinese human spaceflight facilities that were not offered to my predecessors."
The Global Times has quoted Hu Yumin, a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, as stating as follows: "Although it has been impossible for the two sides to work out any substantive agreements, the visit could pave the way for possible future cooperation. The US, a leader in space technology, possibly conceives cooperation with China as helpful to addressing obstacles in future US space projects. Many scientists in both countries have longed for cooperation between China and the US. Bolden's trip will not only cement bilateral cooperation but also increase trust between the two countries."
One has been seeing a trust-distrust syndrome in Sino-US relations since the beginning of this year. The People's Liberation Army (PLA), particularly the new generation of younger officers who are rising to positions of senior leadership in the military hierarchy, continues to show signs of distrust of the US. This is particularly so in the Navy. In other segments of the Chinese strategic community such as the Foreign Office, the various economic ministries and scientific establishments the distrust of the US is not that pronounced. In fact, these non-military elements in the strategic community seem to be keen to keep the present level of co-operation with the US and even increase it.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
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