Chinese lunar capsule Chang’e 5 landed on moon’s surface on December 1, 2020 and returned to earth a fortnight later with the first fresh samples of rock and debris from the moon in more than 40 years.
In the old Frank Sinatra song, flying to the moon meant “playing up there with those stars” and seeing “what life is like on a-Jupiter and Mars” — in other words, “filling the heart with song”. But in the third decade of the 21st century, it is epochal politics — and potentially 2-3 trillion dollar business.
Lunar politics took a big leap forward last Tuesday with the announcement in Beijing and Moscow that they have signed a memorandum of understanding signalling commitment to create a new lunar space station that will be “a comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit.”
The statement said the lunar station “will carry out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities such as the lunar exploration and utilisation, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment and technical verification.”
The proposed cooperation will cover the planning, demonstration, design, development, implementation and operation of the project, which will be focused on multidisciplinary scientific research activities on the lunar surface or in lunar orbit, including lunar exploration and utilisation, moon-based observation, basic science experiments and technology verification.
Without doubt, this comes at the expense of prior cooperation between Russia’s Roscosmos and the NASA. Conceivably, Russia and China are preparing to challenge the US in outer space. Washington will not see this as a benign enterprise.
Russia and China are responding to the Trump administration’s strategic decision to exclude them from its so-called Artemis Accords, which the Trump administration unveiled in 2020 (a set of guidelines surrounding the US’ Artemis Program for crewed exploration of the Moon.) Moscow and Beijing see the Artemis programme as a power grab as the US increasingly treats space as a new military domain. The US proposes to create “safety zones” on the lunar surface that would surround its future moon bases ostensibly to prevent damage or interference from rival countries or companies operating in close proximity.
The immense potential to yield scientific discoveries apart, all these technologies are inherently dual-purpose and scientific work can always be turned into weapons development. Indeed, there is a huge economic dimension to all this as well. According to reports, NASA is investing tens of billions of dollars into the Artemis program, which calls for putting humans on the moon by 2024 and building up a “sustainable presence” on the lunar south pole thereafter, with private companies mining lunar rocks and subsurface water that can be converted to rocket fuel.
On its part, China too plans to establish an Earth-Moon Special Economic Zone by the year 2050, and once operational, China expects the zone to generate an astonishing $1 trillion dollars through space-based services and manufacturing, and extraction of extra-terrestrial natural resources. China has already started investing in Space-Based Solar Power – a technology that it plans to use to power a lunar base — and is planning to invest in the deployment of a transportation system linking Earth and its natural satellite.
The US still has an option to continue to engage Russia (which is most interested in cash), since the two space agencies NASA and Roscosmos have actually been cooperating in outer space during the past quarter century with regard to the international space station. But Moscow senses that the Biden Administration would prefer to decouple.
The bottomline is that the expanding Sino-Russian cooperation in outer space has come as the two countries’ respective relationships with the US have deteriorated in the recent years. Meanwhile, China has effectively drafted Russia as an equal partner in space missions that it already has put in the pipeline, outpacing a Russian program that has stalled in recent years due to lack of funding.
China has ambitious plans to establish a leading position in the economic and military use of outer space and has ample funding to surpass the US in terms of space-related industry, technology, diplomacy, and military power. China’s plans are to industrially dominate the space within the moon’s orbit of Earth and it has made significant resource allocation to explore the national security and economic value of this area, including its potential for space-based manufacturing, resource extraction, and power generation.
The space programme also dovetails with China’s terrestrial geopolitical objectives, such as cultivating customers for the Belt and Road Initiative by establishing an expanding network of overseas space ground stations. China’s promotion of launch services, satellites, and the Beidou global navigation system under its “Space Silk Road” is deepening participants’ reliance on China for space-based services. With Russia by its side, China could now draw in other countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America, establishing parallel programs for lunar development.
China is also steadily establishing a commanding position in the commercial launch and satellite sectors and has already succeeded in undercutting some US and other foreign launch and satellite providers in the international market, threatening to hollow out these countries’ space industrial bases.
Beijing envisions the lunar domain as the foundation for establishing a long-term presence in space and jumping-off point for deep space exploration missions. This foundation envisages a transport hub orbiting Earth with permanently docked nuclear-powered shuttles for space missions, accessible from Earth via reusable rockets.
The lunar space will also play an important role in China’s plans for space-based solar power, a futuristic power source that China aims to fully deploy by 2050, which may have the potential to provide virtually unlimited renewable power to the whole world.
Space is increasingly turning into a critical US military and economic vulnerability, with China fielding an array of direct-ascent, cyber, electromagnetic, and co-orbital counter-space weapons capable of targeting nearly every class of US space asset. The People’s Liberation Army has also developed doctrinal concepts for the use of these weapons encouraging escalatory attacks against an adversary’s space systems early in a conflict, threatening to destabilise the space domain. The deterrent value is important, as it may be difficult for the US to deter Beijing from using these weapons, given its vulnerability in space.
In geopolitical terms, this week’s China-Russia moonshot agreement is a stunning evidence that the US’ double containment strategy against China and Russia is pure fantasy borne out of the “unipolar predicament”. Frederick Kempe, President & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the most influential US think-tanks on global affairs, has written in a commentary that it is “important for the Biden administration to reflect on how this latest news should be factored into its emerging approach to Putin’s Russia… Whatever course Biden chooses, he would be wise not to compound the mistakes of previous administrations due to misperceptions about Russia’s decline or too singular a focus on Beijing.”
However, do not expect a turnaround in the US policies toward Russia under President Joe Biden’s watch. The US elites and strategic community are unwilling to face the reality that America is in decline and global hegemony will remain a distant dream. The historic development underscoring Moscow’s decision that it sees its space future with China unambiguously signals its growing strategic alignment with Beijing.