China seems more open to international co-operation in space programmes, experts say, with the question now whether the country will join the International Space Station in coming years.
"There is a change in the Chinese attitude, with a call for co-operation in space. And Americans aren't reticent," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency, CNES.
Le Gall spoke on Thursday as he left a meeting in Washington of envoys from 30 space-faring nations discussing ways to pool efforts to explore the stars.
The space race started as a cold war competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
As budgets shrink, the US is relying more on private companies and looking to keep costs down with multinational collaborations, and other countries that are emerging as future players in space.
The participants at the conference, which included Brazil, China, India, Japan and Russia, "showed a strong desire for coming together" in space exploration activities, Le Gall said, noting that the Chinese showed up in force with a large delegation.
"The big question for the next three years is whether China will join the International Space Station," which currently includes the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada, he said.
"That's the challenge," the CNES chief said, recalling that the United States had just extended the orbiting space lab's mission by at least four years to 2024.
John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a Nasa consultant, shared Le Gall's sentiment. He said that China has indicated its willingness to participate in the international space exploration co-ordination group, which currently has 14 members including Nasa.
Beijing has invited other countries to join its own project that aims to put a Chinese space station into orbit within 10 years.
"Every indication is that China is eager to become part of the inner circle of space countries, rather than going its own path," Logsdon said.
He said it was surprising that China, which, along with the United States and Russia was one of three countries in the world "that knows how to put people in space", was not "directly involved in things like the International Space Station".
Logsdon said it was "very possible" that China would be invited within the next two or three years to join some activities aboard the ISS, although he said it was likely to be part of a broader initiative that could also include Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
He said that Nasa was not authorised by the US Congress to work with China because several lawmakers consider it a risk to America's national security.