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The United States and China have agreed to step up discussions on cooperative space exploration, as both countries separately pursue ambitious plans to send a manned mission to the Moon by around 2020.

US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintaro have agreed during a summit in Beijing this week to formalize joint space talks, beginning with exchange visits of their respective space agency chiefs next year.

"The United States and China look forward to expanding discussions on space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit," a US-China joint statement released Tuesday said. "Both sides welcome reciprocal visits of the NASA Administrator and the appropriate Chinese counterpart in 2010."

The statement continued that both sides believe they have common interests in "promoting the peaceful use of outer space" and also agree to "take steps to enhance security in outer space." They stated further discussions on cooperation would be done by venues such future summits and through "military-to-military exchanges."

Joint space ventures with China would require a major shift in US policy towards sharing potential military technology with the country. But China's space exploration program has been extremely successful so far, with projects such as orbiting a robotic probe around the moon and becoming the third nation to independently stage a space walk.

NASA director Charles Bolden, on a personal visit to Japan, appeared up to the task of formalizing a cooperative space initiative with China.

"I am perfectly willing, if that's the direction that comes to me, to engage the Chinese in trying to make them a partner in any space endeavor. I think they're a very capable nation," he told reporters on a visit to Tokyo, according to the AFP.

"They have demonstrated their capability to do something that only two other nations have done -- that is, to put humans in space. And I think that is an achievement you cannot ignore," he said, adding that if the US and China can cooperate, both would probably be better off than if they did not. ®

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