The Strategic Implications of the China-Russia Lunar Base Cooperation Agreement

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The Strategic Implications of the China-Russia Lunar Base Cooperation Agreement

With their agreement, the partners are signalling an alternative to a U.S.-led order in space.

The Strategic Implications of the China-Russia Lunar Base Cooperation Agreement
Credit: Flickr/Nigel Howe

On March 9, 2021, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Russian Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the joint construction of an autonomous lunar permanent research base. Employing the language of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, China and Russia emphasized that the MoU is about scientific discovery as well as the use of lunar terrain. The agreement describes the planned International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) as “a comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operations, built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit that will carry out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities such as the lunar exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment, and technical verification.”

These two major space faring nations have agreed to promote the ILRS to gain international partners for their joint lunar mission, especially by broadcasting China’s lunar South Pole environment and resource survey mission, the Chang’e 7 and Russia’s Luna-Resurs-1 Russian Orbital Spacecraft (OS) Mission.

That China and Russia would cooperate on exploration and utilization of lunar resources comes as no surprise. Both countries, especially Russia, keenly watched as the United States announced the Artemis Accords for creating an international mechanism for lunar development led by the U.S. and partner nations. ROSCOSMOS, in reaction to the Artemis Accords and especially former President Donald Trump’s April 6, 2020 executive order on the utilization of space resources for international partnerships stated, via its deputy director for international cooperation, Sergei Savelyev, that “attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually take over other planets” go against the principle of international cooperation. The Kremlin likened Trump’s executive order to the colonization of space, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov coming out strong, stating that it would be “unacceptable” for the U.S. to privatize and colonize space.

While China officially did not respond to the Artemis Accords, the CNSA’s Space Law Center Deputy Director Guoyu Wang argued in an article in The Space Review that the accords cannot be viewed as an extension of the OST, but are instead an attempt to create norms outside of established international regulatory frameworks.

Why this emphasis on the moon by all the major space players?

The Moon Is Strategic

The moon is no longer seen as a dead rock where humanity lands for a few days, shows off technology, and then journeys back to Earth. Today the discourse on the moon is about its resource potential, including the presence of water ice, solar power, and rare earth elements like platinum, titanium, scandium, and yttrium. Chinese space scientists and engineers have long recognized the economic potential of space resources to include a $10 trillion return on investments from the Earth-moon zone annually by 2050.

All the way back in 2002, Ouyang Ziyuan, lead scientist and founder of China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) specified that “China’s long-term aim and task is to set up a base on the moon to tap and make use of its rich resources.” His perspective was supported at the highest level of CNSA leadership. China’s subsequent demonstrations of lunar capacity include a far side lunar landing in 2019 and an autonomous lunar sample return mission in 2020.

Other benefits highlighted by Chinese scientists are the potential of lunar propellant made from water-ice lowering the cost of access and movement throughout the entire volume of cislunar space. Launching from the moon is 22 times more efficient than launching from Earth due to Earth’s gravity well. In order to access those lunar resources, a long-term permanent presence, first robotic, then human, will be necessary. This aspect of first mastering autonomous robotic lunar basing capacities is highlighted in the China-Russia MoU.

Similar to China’s long-term plans for a permanent presence on the moon and a lunar research base by 2036, Russia in 2018 announced its own lunar plan, which included resource extraction ambitions, backed by a three phase base construction plan between 2025 and 2040. The first stage is a lunar orbiter module (2025); the second phase will be the construction of a lunar base (2025-2034); and the third phase (2040) will involve the construction of an “integrated manned moon exploration system.” The former chief designer of Russia’s manned space programs, the late Yevgeny Mikrin, in an interview with state run RIA Novosti news in November 2018, specified that the construction of the moon colony was to begin in 2025.

The strategic recognition of the critical role of the Earth-moon economic zone for future space development and utilization is the first peg on which the China-Russia MoU stands. Besides that, there are two other specific geopolitical and regime constriction considerations at play here.

Geopolitical Considerations

The future of space is its economy, with possible returns in the trillions of dollars. And robust economic growth leads to military and other power projection capacities. Both China and Russia understand the impact of space on the future of global leadership. China wants to become the foremost space power by 2045, in time for the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic in 2049. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly highlighted the intrinsic contribution of space to Chinese global leadership. The idea behind China’s space philosophy is to demonstrate high-end technology, including human missions, lunar soft landings (near and far side), lunar sample returns, and Mars missions, to be followed by construction of a permanent space station, space-based solar power satellites, and deep space probes.

For China, the MoU with Russia came at the appropriate geopolitical moment, especially after it has successfully demonstrated high end indigenous space capacity like lunar far side landing, autonomous lunar sample return, and a Mars mission. China no longer has to worry about the age-old cliché that all Chinese space technology is reengineered Russian space technology.

For Russia, joining in with China’s lunar base goal, even as a junior partner, means that the two nations can pool their joint international resources to register opposition to a U.S.-led space order, something both sides are uncomfortable with. For Russia and especially President Vladimir Putin, it is about taking back the space leadership position it enjoyed as the erstwhile Soviet Union.

This lunar MoU is a continuation of the two nations’ geopolitical behavior on Earth, where China and Russia have established alternative security systems like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which Russia is a participating country. By establishing an alternative lunar base development effort, China and Russia are questioning the legitimacy of the Artemis Accords and signaling that they do not view U.S. efforts, both public and private, as the only mechanism for cooperation in space. Basically, this is clear indication that leadership in space is contested. Once they draw in enough partners and signatories to their lunar research base, China and Russia will have the power and influence to create an alternative state-centric preamble and lunar accord crafting the regulatory regime around lunar exploration and development. Both wield enormous clout internationally via their U.N. Security Council permanent memberships and veto power as well as advocacy in U.N. space bodies.

Signing an MoU for lunar development has several long-term strategic implications for both as well. First, Russia gets access to an international structure already in place under China’s BRI, in which nearly 140 countries are now participating. Both sides get access to launch sites, ground stations, and receiver stations in China and Russia, as well as access to a universal scientific talent pool, to include growing Chinese and Russian space expertise, and burgeoning employment opportunities in China where aerospace salaries are becoming globally competitive. They will also be able to divide the long-term costs of research and development. Finally, the MoU offers a rather flexible international partnership for countries. A decision on inclusion lies primarily with either Xi or Putin, unlike U.S. space partnerships, which have to pass through several interagency clearance processes and time-consuming bureaucratic procedures.

Strategic Regime Constriction

China and Russia have expressed opposition to the U.S. policy moves to enable the private sector and commercialization of space in Artemis Accords signatory countries, as well as national legislation like the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act 2015 (CSLCA). Beijing and Moscow are especially worried by the prospect of the private space sector taking the lead in developing space technology breakthroughs. This implies fast enhancement of capability (think SpaceX and Blue Origin reusable rockets, lunar landers), truly democratizing space beyond just the state-owned institutions currently at the forefront of space policy, technology development, and missions. This has serious economic consequences in a globally competitive trillion-dollar space market. This aspect was evident in Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s vocal opposition to the U.S. focus on the privatization of space.

China, and to a larger extent Russia, do not yet have a vibrant private space sector capable of competing with the U.S. private sector globally, even though China under Xi has created enormous financial and ideological incentives for Chinese private space startups since 2014. China has, however, excelled in and utilized state-based policies to rein in its own private space sector under its strict Civil-Military Fusion Strategy and its new National Defense Law 2021.

The CSLCA, which supports U.S. private citizens’ ownership of space resources; the Artemis Accords’ emphasis on commercial activities on the moon, establishment of safety zones, and utilization of space resources; and the April 6, 2020 executive order calling for space resource utilization efforts based on international partnerships have galvanized the China-Russia MoU, an alternative lunar development mechanism led by authoritarian state-owned space agencies. Both China and Russia fear that with the Artemis Accords, the private space sector has been strengthened legally to invest in lunar breakthroughs that would take their own state-owned space agencies years to compete with or catch up to. They also fear that the Cold War-based space governance mechanisms that limit private development of space might be unraveling, especially if today’s leading space-faring states become flexible on the regulatory mechanisms set up during the Cold War that have stifled private innovation in space by creating incentives for state funded and owned space activities.

Innovation in technology will be a game changer in space going forward, and both China and Russia realize the impact of, say, SpaceX’s reusable heavy lift rocket, Starship, scheduled for launch by 2023, with plans for crewed missions to the moon and Mars (with orbital refueling). Starship will be the world’s most advanced reusable rocket, with a lift capacity of 100 metric tonnes to low earth orbit (LEO). In comparison, China has plans for a reusable Long March 8 rocket (with a lift capacity of 8.4 metric tonnes to LEO) designed by the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), but this is clearly not in the same class of rockets like Starship.

Their vocal oppositions to the entry of the U.S. private space sector buys time for China and Russia to catch up over the next decade or so. By 2030, China has its own plans for a heavy lift rocket, the Long March 9, which will have a lift capacity of 140 metric tonnes to LEO, and also aspires to master reusability in the next 20 years. However, time is of the essence in space power projection and a single technology can change the game, as reusability has done for launch infrastructure.

A Changed Reality

China and Russia’s lunar base MoU has changed the alignment structures around space cooperation and sends a clear signal to the United States and the seven other Artemis Accords partners that space is contested. China and Russia are offering avenues for alternate partnership, especially to encourage countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey to join, both of whom have aspirations to develop their space sector. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced Turkish ambitions to make first contact with the moon by 2023 (the 100th year celebration of the establishment of the Turkish republic) with the help of international partnerships.

Despite the U.S. private space sector advantages identified above, the U.S. suffers from a lack of continuity and emphasis in its space sector at the policy level due to changing space priorities across presidential administrations. We saw such uncertainty creep in with regard to its Artemis Accords (established under the Trump administration), the Space Force, and the reconstitution of the National Space Council after President Joe Biden was sworn in. Biden has offered little insight into his administration’s space priorities, including on critical concepts like space resource utilization and development. Such uncertainties can stifle international partnerships and technology development.

In contrast, despite lacking a similarly vibrant private sector, China’s clear articulation of its long-term steady lunar missions, and its ability to commit resources without having to worry about a change in missions with a change in administrations, showcases its long-term assurance that it can meet its goal of establishing a lunar base, now in partnership with Russia. While technology is a game changer, a nation cannot succeed in space without long-term strategic vision.