The Obama Administration appears absolutely intent on engaging the PRC in space cooperation. How else to explain the claim by White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren that the congressional restriction banning U.S.–Chinese space cooperation under just about any circumstances was not, in fact, a ban?

According to Holdren, the White House has concluded that the provision doesn’t extend to “prohibiting interactions that are part of the president’s constitutional authority to conduct negotiations.” That includes, he said, a bilateral agreement on scientific cooperation between the two countries that dates back to 1979. One doesn’t need a presidential signing statement to see that the White House is near-desperate to engage the PRC in space cooperation.

The problem is that, if the answer is “cooperation,” what is the question? Moreover, the Administration has never satisfactorily answered just what it is that it seeks to cooperate with the Chinese on. Is it still intent on negotiating a space arms control treaty? Is it hankering for a joint manned mission to the moon, Mars, or Pluto?

At this time, it’s useful to note that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had proposed a Strategic Security Dialogue with the Chinese to cover space issues (along with nuclear, cyber, and missile defense), yet the Chinese politely refused during his visit. Maybe that will change by the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks later this month—but don’t bet on it.

Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has yet to give a public accounting of what happened during his October visit to China.

Perhaps this is the reason for the unseemly slipperiness of the Administration on cooperation? Just what was promised? Just what have we committed ourselves to?