The Future of the Asian Order Will Be Decided in Space

Space resources could determine which country winds up dominating the 21st century.

By Peter Garretson for
The Future of the Asian Order Will Be Decided in Space
Credit: ESA/NASA, British astronaut Tim Peake

In the ongoing contest for standing among nations, a factor many fail to consider is space. The vast resources of space could tip the balance in favor of whichever nation proves most successful in exploiting them and ensuring the security of the celestial lines of commerce.

States pay close attention to economic opportunities that do not even amount to a single percent of their GDP.  States play hardball over energy resources that are mere years of domestic supply. But within space lies not a percent, not 10 percent, not 100 percent of a nation’s GDP, but many, many times the value of the entire global GDP in resources. Within space is not a small energy source, but sufficient supply of constant solar energy to light a fully developed world six to seven times over.  As poetically explained in Bob Zubrin’s The Case for Space, nothing is a resource until the cleverness of humanity makes it so.

Today’s global order features a rapidly rising China, soon to pass the United States in real GDP.  Behind it, another space-faring power, India, is expected to eclipse China circa 2050.  But space resources could make all the difference. Accessing multitrillion dollar-asteroids or multitrillion-dollar power markets could accelerate China’s rise, prolong U.S. hegemony, or enable a late-blooming India to overtake China.  At midcentury, it could permit China to hang on to its number one spot, allowing it to stay rich long after it grows old.  Or it could enable India with its young and vibrant population to surpass China far sooner than either expects.

As with access to the resources of the New World or Africa, the scramble for such resources is entirely undecided and rests upon the ingenuity of each country’s respective tech sectors and the wisdom of their national policies. The winner might not even be one of today’s economic giants. First-mover advantages can be ephemeral and new technologies can be copied. Organization-of-capital and market-friendliness may be even more important, and — like Portugal in the Age of Sail — even small countries like Luxembourg or UAE might be in a position to command vast wealth.

China is the first major power to adopt a national strategy to access and secure space resources. But while neither U.S. or Indian civil space programs are yet to focused on building the elements of space industrial power, there is dawning awareness in both the United States and India that China’s moves may be important and must be answered.  While first-mover advantages may be ephemeral, owning the carrying trade and commanding market share can bring disproportionate power to shape markets and set rules. Large market share often results in feedback where high volumes enable progressively lower costs and greater market share. Examples such as the iPhone show how quickly new products and markets can develop and scale.  Asteroid mining and space solar power may appear conceptual today, but could rapidly enter an exponential phase to disrupt existing markets.

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At the center of today’s security concerns are chokepoints where oil and liquid natural gas are shipped.  Energy-producing states enjoy significant power to shape the international order to their preferences. It will be the same in our spacefaring future. As China first prototypes and then proves the technology for solar power satellites, it will be rapidly populated with orbital power stations and the geostationary satellite belt will assume grand geostrategic importance as the hub of the worlds power grid.  The resource-rich North and South Poles of Earth’s moon, and the intermediate points between the moon and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) will be the primary lanes of material commerce to service and build them — at least until some intrepid nation captures and begins to mine asteroids.

Once humanity has proven the ability to source in-space resources and to construct large industrial structures, the momentum will be unstoppable. More and more of our important industries will move to space. First high bandwidth internet, then electrical power, then specialized manufacturing (fiber, crystals, specialty parts, biotech). The cost of transportation will continue to drop and open up more markets and opportunities to develop new products and services.  The population of human beings in space for commercial purposes will grow, and eventually, agriculture and real estate itself will become a market. It will become progressively easier to go further into the solar system.  With over a billion times the resources of planet Earth waiting in outer space, the nations that can command the highest productivity resources and industries will wield disproportionate wealth and power on Earth. That leader will be established in the next two decades, and likely endure for a century. Who that leader is unknown, but they will be writing the future of Earthly power.

Peter Garretson is an independent strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense.  He was previously the director of Air University’s Space Horizons Task Force, America’s think tank for space, and was deputy director of America’s premier space strategy program, the Schriever Scholars.  All views are his own.