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Lonely Out in Space, China Looks for Partners and Business

Ralph Jennings

TAIPEI (TheStreet) -- China has asked before that the West let it join the exploration of outer space. It might as well have reported sightings of three-eyed green men riding on saucers.

Now it suddenly has a shot at working with foreign countries and their aerospace contractors.

Last month China made a robotic soft launch to the moon, took a few snaps and left. Technically, that's enough to become the world's third country to reach the symbolic sphere that orbits earth. This month the head of China's space industry, Xu Dazhe, politely asked again via his country's state media about working more deeply with other countries in outer space. He meant the West.

Because of its peaceful and successful space missions since 1999, China may finally get replies to its calls for cooperation, despite lingering worries about aerospace technology theft and use of space to spy.

Translation into business terms: aerospace contracts.

China wants to visit outer space mainly to say it has visited outer space, which is good for rallying nationalism at home, just as other big countries have. It shows no signs of budgetary constraints or domestic disagreement about whether space program is worth it. And China wants to work with other countries to learn from them. Other countries might even learn from China now, making for more of a cooperation among equals more than before. China has shown it can reach the moon without foreign help on a path toward its own space station into orbit within 10 years. (It's barred from the International Space Station.)

"What's different now is that China is more capable," says Lin Chong-pin, a Taipei-based China scholar and former deputy Taiwan defense minister. "More participation would dilute the China threat issue, and the Chinese are smart. They know they can learn from others."

China isn't releasing an outline of the cooperation it wants. But most of the space-traveling world has effectively left the era of looking for life on Mars to focus more on earth-related missions such as national defense, environmental research and satellite communications. China has already helped other countries launch satellites, including a Dec. 21 launch for Bolivia.

These terrestrial interests may be the launch pad for what looks like inevitable cooperation.

As governments lean on private business for all but primary R&D, practical help extended to China would tap the expertise and hardware of major Western aerospace companies such as Boeing , Airbus AIR , Lockheed Martin , Raytheon and Thales HO . There is money to be made from Chinese tech purchases, too.

China has already studied the skies with Russia, which inherited the former Soviet space exploration empire. Russia is used to sharing sensitive stuff with China despite old rivalries. China has also worked with the space program of the European Union, which China Daily says joined the observation of China's moon landing.

But China is really after a collaboration with the United States, where the law bars NASA from using its funds to host Chinese visitors because of security risks and from working one-on-one with Chinese affiliates of government agencies or state companies. Security fright also extends to China's private sector.

Eventually the United States will come around.

The International Lunar Observatory Association in Hawaii indicated a willingness to cooperate by signing an accord with the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing to let the U.S. side use a Chinese lunar lander to do astronomical imaging from the moon.

A likely next move: adding China to a cooperation scheme that also includes other countries. Working with China makes sense, as Washington relies more on emerging space players and private companies. "The incentive for the rest of the world to say 'yes' is more now than before," Lin says.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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