Two Alpha’s Howling at the Moon: the history, meaning and implications of the 2011 Wolf Amendment on US-Sino space cooperation

By: Louisa Handel-Mazzetti

“The Defense Department is taking innovative and bold actions to ensure space superiority and secure the nation’s vital interests in space now and in the future”.

This is not a statement that dates to the Cold War, this is the US Defense Department’s statement that represents the current, US policy on outer space. When thinking of a “space race”, “space war” or even a “star war”, most people think of science fiction or the infamous space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Nowadays, in the US, outer space has become one of the hottest topics in technological development. Especially commercial actors like Elon Musk’s SpaceX has become a frequent topic of debate between policymakers and businessmen alike. However, alongside the mass development of commercial spacecraft, the US has taken huge steps to ensure their space superiority and has found itself in a new space race: not against Elon Musk or Richard Branson, not against the Russian Federation, but against the upcoming superpower China. And their actions have been nothing short of “bold”, as indeed the Defense Department suggests.

During the Cold War, the space race took on its prominence thanks to the importance of rocket technology and satellite technology. Specifically, intercontinental ballistic missiles were an important technique to carry nuclear weapons and target long-distance places, which was an important strategic incentive for both countries that stood on the edge of a nuclear showdown. In addition, rocket technology was crucial for satellites, and satellites were in turn a crucial technique for espionage, one of the key strategies in the Cold War. One of the US’ “darkest cold war moments” was when the Soviet Union was the first to launch a satellite into space: Sputnik I. The Sputnik Crisis would set outer space high on the US’ agenda. On November 7, 1957, the Gaither Report was published to advice president Eisenhower on the issue of Sputnik. Here, we are presented to a similar rhetoric as in 2021: US defense resources would have to be made part of “part of a broad program to improve the security and political position of the Free World as a whole, in accord with the enlightened self-interest of the United States”. In the end, the US won the space race by putting the first man on the moon. The small step for humanity was just the beginning of an unfolding space saga that would continue in US policy. 

Just like during the Cold War, satellites and other related-space tools are nowadays still considered crucial and especially very sensitive technologies. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), space technologies are important for an enormous number of different applications. For example, the United Nations specifically refers to space technologies to support almost all Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). Most importantly, space is crucial for satellite technologies. Nowadays, like Elon Musk’s Starlink and Chinese SatNet, are already building enormous satellite networks to connect areas unreachable by land-based technologies to satellites. Next to that, satellites can be used to develop space surveillance networks that can search, track and characterize other satellites in earth orbit. Also, satellites can be used for surveillance, reconnaissance, and other space- and earth-based intelligence. All in all, satellites have the capacity for many different uses, which in the wrong hands, can have disastrous results. The WEF recognized this and called for space to be promoted as a shared interest and for countries to seek partnerships and dialogue.

According to the report by the US Defense Intelligence Agency “Challenges to Security in Space”, space technological development has created both new opportunities and new risks. They have “seen the benefits of space-enabled operations, some foreign governments are developing capabilities that threaten other’s ability to use space” and call out Russia and China for doing so. They believe that “Chinese and Russian military doctrines indicate that they view space as important to modern warfare and view counterspace capabilities as means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness”. In short, space technologies and data in the hands of these regimes are considered a danger to the US’ interests. Especially because satellites are used to enable the key technologies to any society. Therefore, the US deemed it vital to protect their technological advances and ensure no leakage of information to other “dangerous” regimes; insert the Wolf Amendment. 

The Wolf Amendment

In 2011, Representative Frank Wolf introduced and passed the “Wolf Amendment”. This amendment banned NASA for bilaterally working together with China in any form or way. Specifically, NASA was banned from:

  1. Participating, collaborating, or coordinating bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities were specifically authorized by a law.
  2. Use their funds to effectuate the hosting of official Chinese visitors at NASA.

However, there were some limitations:

  1. If no information would be shared with national security or economic security implications, according to the FBI.
  2. If no interactions with officials who have been determined by the USA to have direct involvement with violations of human rights would take place. 

As of now, this amendment is still in place and has tremendous implications on bilateral cooperation between the US and China in the fields of space technology. 

Is the US right to distrust China in space? Next to the Chinese record of espionage and technology sharing, is there an actual threat to “military hegemony” to the US in space? China has recently designated space as a military domain with the goal of space warfare and operations to achieve space superiority as well. China has reorganized its space forces and introduced technologies that have the control over cyber- and electronic warfare. Is it likely that they will use this for direct aggression? Probably not, as it has become clear from previous statements that Xi does not wish to provoke a war with the US, but the Chinese are clearly showing the US that they also can be a strong counter partner in space, both against the US and as an alternative partner for other states. Most importantly, it should be exaggerated that the use of space for military purposes is only likely as part of a conflict on earth, and not as a separate domain. Nevertheless, the Chinese have been excluded from multiple intellectual exchanges and conversations with the US.

A month before the multilateral Kepler conference hosted in November 2013 by NASA, NASA barred Chinese researchers from attending the conference based on the Wolf amendment and “security concerns”. The Chinese reacted fiercely and called the ban “discriminatory”, referring to the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the USA, and called the Americans fearful of the Chinese rapid development. Many American scientists boycotted the conference in response, explaining that they did not believe security concerns were the issue at stake, nor did they consider going to a conference that was so openly discriminatory. A few days later, Rep. Wolf responded to explain the misinterpretation of the rules. According to him, the Wolf amendment only restricts “bilateral, not multilateral, meetings and activities with Chinese parties and places no restrictions on activities involving individual Chinese nationals who are not acting as official representatives of the Chinese government”. In effect, NASA took back its original ban and instead, Charlie Bolden, NASA’s chief administrator ordered a review of the Chinese scientists’ application to re-invite anyone who passed the security checks. 

The effects of the amendment did not restrict itself to this, one-time event. Currently, the effects are still being felt. The Chinese have made incredible developments when it comes to space, but it is not allowed to share their findings with the US, due to the US-imposed ban on bilateral cooperation. In December 2020, China returned to Earth with about 2 kilograms of Moon rocks. These rock samples are very valuable for research about lunar resources, and can be used for sustainable sources. Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the Chinese Space Administration, announced that “the Chinese government is ready to share samples”, yet they were not allowed to do so with the US due to the existence of the Wolf amendment. Also, because of the Wolf amendment, China cannot participate on the International Space Station.

China is known for creating parallel institutions when it is not allowed to participate in others: enter the Tiangong Space Station. One of three modules, Tianhe, has already been launched into low-orbit and two more parts are joining it in 2022. Tianhe is a main habitat for astronauts and the two other modules will be used to conduct experiments. These laboratories are the second of its sort to operate into space, after the ISS. Why is this relevant? Because the ISS is aging and will become inoperable within the coming decade. Tiangong will not replace the ISS, as it is simply not big enough, but its laboratory does mark an interesting addition to space as the ISS is deteriorating. Thus, it will become the only available forum in space for multilateral and bilateral scientific exploration. Especially as China has mentioned that Tiangong will be open to all countries, including the United States. Most importantly, it raises questions: without a replacement, will the United States be able to cooperate in space with other powers? Will the US join the laboratory research facilities on Tiangong? Or will the US remain headstrong and continue its resistance of Chinese cooperation?

Is it then time to disband the amendment? Many officials have said that the Wolf amendment has not been very useful. Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the CSIS has said that the Amendment has not been effective in changing Chinese behavior.  Other experts said that it does nothing to promote human rights and it hands China an opportunity to challenge NASA’s leadership. But exactly since China has taken steps to achieve this, is it then not more useful to disband the amendment and seek to profit from Chinese technological knowledge and developments as well? When NASA and CNSA would work together, both parties would greatly benefit from bilateral scientific and engineering exchanges, and in the long term would only profit from possible technological advancements coming from this exchange.

As things currently stand, bilateral space cooperation between the two superpowers is a limited and diplomatically difficult affair. Even when both parties are making significant advances in the field, they are not able to share this information, thus directly interfering with further scientific advancement. Understandably, the US wishes to limit the exchange of satellite technology, as it is indeed crucial and sensitive technology. But for other applications of space technology, the benefits of mutual exchange can only be emphasized. Disbanding the Wolf Amendment would be a useful step, and instead a paradigm should be set in place that oversees the content and sensitivity of information shared, rather than banning most forms of bilateral cooperation. Especially seeing the future of the ISS, but also the rapid development of Chinese exploration, it is only beneficial to the US, rather than setting them behind even further in the space race. 

The Wolf Amendment ultimately undermines international cooperation and advancement, or the general culture of multilateralism, by sowing distrust and creating barriers between the major superpowers. It has increased the potential for misunderstandings and tensions, and only increased the climate of competition between the two powers. The amendment does not effectively do its job to prevent anything and instead only sets the US behind by blocking knowledge-exchanges, increasing mutual distrust and starting a space race where the only ultimate loser looks to be the United States, rather than China. Cooperation with China would help alleviate tensions through transparency and diplomacy, and ultimately a peaceful development of the galaxy (not so far away) seems to be most beneficial for all.


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