China & Russia Sign Space Pact, But What Will It Produce?

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. (Credit: A. Savin)
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. (Credit: A. Savin)

With ties with the United States frayed over Ukraine, Russia has rushed to deepen its ties with China. Everyone’s favorite Josef Stalin-loving deputy prime minister was in China last week to lay the foundation for deeper cooperation in space.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin has followed last week’s rhetorical bombshell — that Russia was not interested in extending operation of the International Space Station, or ISS, beyond 2020 — by trumpeting a future of increased cooperation with the emerging Chinese National Space Agency.

Meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister Wang Yang, in Beijing on Monday, Rogozin announced on Twitter that he had signed “a protocol on establishing a control group for the implementation of eight strategic projects.” In a later Facebook post, he said “cooperation in space and in the market for space navigation” were among the projects.

The partnership appears to be aimed largely at post-ISS cooperation. China has plans to place a multi-module space station in orbit by 2020 to which Russia could contribute.

Analysts quoted in The Moscow Times –a media outlets that appears to operates independent of Team Putin — don’t seem to think much of the partnership. They don’t think Russia has much to offer the partnership, and that China has already stripped the Russian space program of most things of value.

“The purpose of any cooperation between states in space is to minimize the costs of complex projects and the development of science and technology,” Pavel Luzin, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute for World Economy and International Relations told the Moscow Times Monday.

By this measure, Luzin sees little point in a Russia-China space partnership. China needs Russia only for “technologies they have not yet developed,” and Russia lacks both a long-term vision for its space program and an industry capable of supporting it.

Aside from the failed Phobos-Grunt scientific mission to one of the Martian moons in 2011, the history of Russian-Chinese cooperation in space amounts to little more than technology transfer.

“In particular, the Chinese manned space program — spacecraft, spacesuits, etc. — is largely built on borrowed Soviet and Russian technology,” Luzin said, and “such cooperation should not be exaggerated.”

The other problem that Luzin cites is a failure of the Putin government to make any meaningful reform of the Soviet-era Russian space program. Rogozin is in charge of reforming the space and defense industries, but problems with failed launches, bloat and inefficiencies remain. Rogozin’s main reform is to try to consolidate much of the industry under one government-owned corporation, which may worsen its international competitiveness.