In May 2020, NASA announced a sweeping new set of principles designed to safeguard the use of outer space titled the Artemis Accords. Seeking to ensure transparency and peace in outer space, facilitate international cooperation, and encourage sustainable lunar resource extraction, the Accords “establish a common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space.” These principles also include requirements that space activities are interoperable, scientific data is shared, nations commit to providing emergency assistance, and that historical sites are preserved as artifacts.
In contrast to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) and the 1979 Moon Agreement, the Artemis Accords are not a new multilateral treaty, but principles that build upon the legal foundations set by the OST. Moreover, NASA intends to enshrine these principles with partner nations through the process of bilateral cooperation and general state practice. In other words, the act of nations accepting these principles through their cooperative ventures with the United States will help calcify norms into international law, even without a legal instrument.
However, the purportedly noble goals of the Accords have not evaded skepticism among some spacefaring nations, particularly the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese State Media Reacts
Although the announcement of the Artemis Accords did not make major headlines in China, the Accords elicited a decisively negative response in Chinese news media. Characterizing the Accords as a disingenuous attempt to stymie Chinese space ambitions, many commentators pointed to the arrival of the announcement shortly after China’s successful test of the Long March 5B, a critical milestone for China’s manned spaceflight programs.
Song Zhongping, a Chinese military and aerospace commentator, likened the Accords to the enclosure movement in 18th-century Great Britain, during which common land was privatized to the benefit of the wealthy. “The U.S. is developing a new space version of an ‘Enclosure Movement,’ in pursuit of colonization and claiming sovereignty over the moon,” Song told the Global Times, criticizing the “Cold War” mentality of the United States as it sought to outcompete China and Russia in outer space. Chinese central state television echoed Song’s concerns, stating that the Accords are a step toward the enclosure of outer space by a self-interested United States.
Others cast doubt on whether the United States could legally justify the Accords under the extant international legal framework. Citing the OST and the Moon Treaty of 1979, critics argued that the Accords violate key principles of international law, which restrict state sovereignty in outer space. In articles published by Guancha and the Global Times, observers called the Artemis Accord an unembellished and “preposterous attempt” to unilaterally set ground rules for lunar resource exploitation. Zhang Baoxin, a Chinese aerospace expert and chief editor of China Aviation News, also explained that, by excluding Russia and China, the Accords would encourage irresponsible use of lunar resources and instigate conflicts over lunar sovereignty.
Legal Experts Weigh In
Although some commentators lambasted the Accords as an ill-conceived instrument to further U.S. dominance in space, Chinese legal commentators did not immediately embrace this narrative.
Ma Zhanyuan, a professor from the Chinese University of Law and Political Science, acknowledged the need for an international framework governing extraction of space resources, such as on the moon. Speaking with two reporters from Beijing News, Ma explained that there “is currently a vacuum in international space law regarding lunar resource extraction.” However, Ma emphasized that such a framework and activities must benefit all of mankind, and that attempts by the U.S. to “formulate its own laws to allow the extraction of space resources… will harm the interests of other countries.”
However, other legal experts were hesitant to sweepingly characterize the Artemis Accords as a self-interested attempt to ensure U.S. interests. A prominent Beijing-based law professor contends that other countries stand to benefit from key principles of the Artemis Accords. “[The Artemis Accords] are doing more agenda-setting than law-writing as it is right now, but every space-capable country could stand to gain cooperatively from moving this agenda forward,” he explained.
Moreover, he emphasized that successful implementation by space powers is critical to international acceptance: “Only technologically capable countries [like the United States] can meaningfully implement any international agreement on space, and potentially establish an acceptable practice as the future basis of new international space law.”
Dai Xin, a U.S.-trained legal scholar and professor at Peking University, also understands the Artemis Accords as more like a contract or vision for outer space than any claim of American sovereignty or authority. “There is little binding effect if the U.S. does it unilaterally to ensure its interests in space,” says Dai. “Without consensus from Russia and China, [the Accords] may at best be a precursor to something more treaty-like by establishing a shared past practice among countries who would accept a U.S.-favorable bilateral or multilateral arrangement.”
Dai’s perspective is echoed in a brief report published by China’s government-sponsored space news platform, which emphasized the benefits of a cooperative framework for lunar activities put forth by the Artemis Accords.
Explaining the Perception Gap
Brushing aside the boilerplate criticisms of U.S. space policy in Chinese news media, legal experts appear cognizant of the parallel objectives between the United States and China as they continue to develop outer space. Regardless of whether space cooperation between the two countries enshrines the Accords bilaterally (a significant unlikelihood due to the Wolf Amendment, which restricts NASA’s ability to cooperate with Chinese agencies), such reactions should encourage measured optimism about Chinese acceptance of the Accords’ underlying principles.
In addition to the common interest of a shared framework for lunar exploration, the Accords build upon widely-accepted and emerging norms. For example, the Accords’ pledge to provide emergency assistance echoes China’s guarantee of such assistance as a signatory of the 1967 Rescue Agreement. Furthermore, the Accords outline principles for responsible debris mitigation and spacecraft disposal; the Chinese government has previously passed domestic legislation aligning with such principles, such as the 2006 China National Industry Standard “Requirements on Space Debris Mitigation,” which was revised in 2015 in accordance with debris mitigation guidelines set forth by the United Nations and IADC.
However, there remains a distinct possibility that the Chinese government will continue to view the Accords as a campaign of encirclement. The moon plays a key role in China’s ambitions for global space leadership, and leading Chinese space scientists have emphasized China’s goal to be the first space power to colonize the moon. In context, the Accords’ announcement soon after the successful launch of China’s critical lunar-capable rocket, the Long March 5, gives credence to the perspective in China that the United States is moving opportunistically to regulate Chinese lunar behavior.
Nonetheless, it remains possible that the U.S. and China can find agreement on the principles outlined in the Accords and can separately work to effectuate those objectives. Even though the Wolf Amendment restricts bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and China, there remains the possibility for the principles of the Accords to crystallize into international law through general state practice by both countries. As they stand, China is not bound to abide by the Accords for its own lunar operations, yet China is equally responsible for ensuring the peaceful and sustainable use of outer space.
Eillot Ji is a Ph.D. student in Princeton University’s Department of Politics. He holds a Masters in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University as a 2020 Schwarzman Scholar and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Emory University.
Michael Cerny holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Chinese Studies from Emory University. He is an incoming MPhil student in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.
Raphael Piliero is a senior at Georgetown University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Government. He was previously a legislative intern to the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.