A Republican lawmaker is looking to make the Obama administration pay a price for what he sees as its defiance of Congress in pursuing cooperation with China in science and space technology.
A proposal by Rep. Frank Wolf, a fierce critic of Beijing, would slash by 55 percent the $6.6 million budget of the White House's science policy office. The measure was endorsed by a congressional committee this week, but faces more legislative hurdles, and its prospects are unclear.
President Barack Obama has sought to deepen ties with China, which underwrites a major chunk of the vast U.S. national debt and is emerging a challenge to American military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. Among the seemingly benign forms of cooperation he has supported is in science and technology. Last year NASA's administrator visited China, and during a high-profile state visit to Washington by China's President Hu Jintao in January, the U.S. and China resolved to "deepen dialogue and exchanges in the field of space."
Wolf, R-Va., argues that cooperation in space would give technological assistance to a country that steals U.S. industrial secrets and launches cyberattacks against the United States.
He says Obama's chief science adviser, John Holdren, violated a clause tucked into budget legislation passed this year that bars the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA from technological cooperation with China. He says Holdren did so by meeting twice with China's science minister in Washington during May.
"I believe the Office of Science and Technology Policy is in violation of the law," Wolf told The Associated Press, adding that cutting its budget is the only response available to him. Wolf chairs a House subcommittee that oversees the office's budget.
The punishment he proposes reflects his deep antipathy toward China, which he accuses of persecuting religious minorities, plundering Tibet and supporting genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan by backing Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. He described the Obama administration's policy toward the Asian power as a failure and railed against the president for hosting Hu at the White House.
Caught at the sharp end is Holdren's office, whose mandate is to develop sound science and technology policies by the U.S. government and pursue them with the public and private sectors and other nations.
Holdren told a Congressional hearing chaired by Wolf days before his May meetings with Chinese Science Minister Wan Gang that he would abide by the prohibition on such cooperation with China, but then spelled out a rather large loophole: that it did not apply in instances where it affected the president's ability to conduct foreign policy.
At another Congressional hearing shortly afterward, Wolf's annoyance was clear. He threatened to "zero out" Holdren's office.
Space cooperation between the two world powers like the U.S. and the Soviet Union pursued in the Cold War still seems a long way off. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. visited China in a little-publicized trip in October and discussed "underlying principles of any future interaction between our two nations in the area of human space flight," but no specific proposals.
China sent an astronaut into space in 2003, and plans to send the first building block of a space station into orbit this year, but it still has comparatively limited experience. Another constraint on cooperation is that its manned space program is dominated by its military, whose other capabilities _ most clearly demonstrated by a 2007 test that destroyed an orbiting satellite _ have alarmed American officials.
But one benefit of basic forms of cooperation, such as sharing data and basic design criteria, could be to learn a little more about China's opaque space program. Since 1999, the U.S. effectively banned use of its space technology by China. That also has a commercial downside for American producers in an increasingly globalized marketplace.
"Renewing civil and commercial space cooperation with China ... is not a blank check and need not provide China with sensitive technologies," wrote James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School in testimony at a congressional hearing on China's civilian and military space programs in May.
Wolf has included the prohibition on cooperation with China by NASA and the White House science policy office in the bill approved Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee. The bill budgets $50.2 billion for a raft of federal agencies involved in law enforcement, trade promotion, space and science for the fiscal year starting in October. The 55 percent reduction faced by the science policy's office far exceeds the overall 6 percent cut in spending across all government agencies covered by the bill.
Holdren's office could not be reached for comment Friday. The bill now goes to the Republican-led House of Representatives for approval. A version also must pass the Democrat-led Senate, and the two bills would have to be reconciled before legislation can be sent to Obama to be signed into law.