Bolden Heads for China, Indonesia for a Bit of Space Diplomacy

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is headed to China and Indonesia this week for talks that will include preliminary discussions on cooperation on human spaceflight between NASA and the Middle Kingdom.

The Chinese trip, which has raised some hackles in Congress, 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,” Bolden wrote in a letter to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).

Wolf had written to Bolden recently objecting to the trip, saying that Congress has placed limits on U.S. cooperation with China in space. The conservative Congressman, who is line for the chairmanship of NASA appropriations subcommittee if Republicans take control of Congress next year, has been very critical of China on human rights and military issues.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) has joined his colleague in opposing the visit, demanding that Congress be consulted first. “I do not believe it is appropriate for the Administrator to meet with any Chinese officials until Congress is fully briefed on the nature and scope of Mr. Bolden’s trip and planned discussions on cooperation,” he wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama.

The Administration has ignored these calls. In his letter to Wolf, Bolden points out that reciprocal visits by space officials were agreed to by Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Obama during the latter’s visit to Beijing last November.

The agreement called for “dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity, and mutual benefit,” Bolden wrote. “I am planning to travel to China October 16-21, 2010, to conduct discussions with a number of senior Chinese officials, including officials from the Ministry of Science and Technology, CMSEO, the China National Space Administration, the China Academy of Spaceflight Technology, and the China Academy of Sciences. While in China, I have also been invited to conduct site visits to Chinese human space flight facilities that were previously not offered to my predecessors.”

In 2007, then NASA Administrator Mike Griffin visited China. However, officials would not allow him to visit many of the nation’s key spaceflight facilities. NASA is promoting Bolden’s trip as a step forward in deepening cooperation and trust between the two nations on spaceflight.

“NASA is also planning to host a reciprocal introductory visit by Chinese Government officials to NASA facilities. Any NASA plans to host this Chinese delegation will be guided by the degree of transparency and openness that is displayed during my visit. However, let me assure you that under no circumstances will the visits include the conveyance of any non-public technical, operational, strategic, or classified information. My staff is prepared to meet with yours to discuss the specific arrangements for these visits,” Bolden added.

The Obama Administration is trying to lessen tensions with China, which have been frayed over military disputes during the past year. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

China’s defense chief met Tuesday with his counterparts from Japan and the United States, as the nations worked to ease tensions over a string of recent maritime disputes in East Asia…

It was the first meeting of American and Chinese defense officials since Beijing froze military ties earlier this year over US arms sales to Taiwan.

Both Gates and [Chinese Defense Minister] Liang [Guanglie] were clearly attempting to defuse recent tensions in the region. Japan recently arrested a Chinese captain near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, detaining him for 17 days before his Sept. 25 release.

From China, Bolden will travel to Indonesia to strengthen U.S. ties with that nation, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. President Obama has made it a priority to expand cooperation with Muslim countries and other non-traditional space partners.

Meanwhile, the Xinhua news agency reports that Chinese astronauts are visiting Indonesia to promote scientific and technical cooperation between the two nations:

Chinese astronauts arrived in Indonesia on Wednesday to kick off series of programs aimed at introducing Chinese advancement in airspace technology and share their experiences as astronauts to Indonesian students in their first official visit in Asian countries.

The Chinese delegation joined by two Chinese astronauts, or popularly known as Taikonouts, Zhai Zhigang and Nie Haisheng, was led by Director of Press Department of China’s Manned Space Engineering Program Office He Tiancheng….

The visit of the Chinese Taikonouts was part of the programs to promote Indonesia-China “Research and Technology Week” previously endorsed by governments of the two countries, slated for next year.

Read the full Xinhua story.