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China’s Lunar Exploration Program Delivers Milestone, Sparks Geopolitical Anxiety in U.S.
China’s Lunar Exploration Program Delivers Milestone, Sparks Geopolitical Anxiety in U.S.

China’s Lunar Exploration Program Delivers Milestone, Sparks Geopolitical Anxiety in U.S.

This week, China’s lunar probe returned to Earth with the first ever samples from the surface of the far side of the moon. This historic feat is a milestone for China’s space program, but it has provoked anxiety among U.S. leaders fearful that they are now trailing in a geopolitical space race. Katrina Miller from The New York Times reported on the latest achievement of China’s lunar exploration program:

The sample, retrieved by the China National Space Administration’s Chang’e-6 lander after a 53-day mission, highlights China’s growing capabilities in space and notches another win in a series of lunar missions that started in 2007 and have so far been executed almost without flaw.

“Chang’e-6 is the first mission in human history to return samples from the far side of the moon,” Long Xiao, a planetary geologist at China University of Geosciences, wrote in an email. “This is a major event for scientists worldwide,” he added, and “a cause for celebration for all humanity.”

Such sentiments and the prospects of international lunar sample exchanges highlighted the hope that China’s robotic missions to the moon and Mars will serve to advance scientific understanding of the solar system. Those possibilities are contrasted by views in Washington and elsewhere that Tuesday’s achievement is the latest milestone in a 21st-century space race with geopolitical overtones. [Source]

China National Space Administration’s vice administrator Bian Zhigang noted that the longstanding U.S. law prohibiting direct space research cooperation between the U.S. and China prevented both countries from working together, but he added that the American position “cannot prohibit China from making giant steps forward in its space program.” Stu Woo, Clarence Leong, and Micah Maidenberg from The Wall Street Journal described how the race in space might mirror U.S.-China competition on Earth:

Unlike the original space race between the Americans and the Soviets, the goal of the U.S. and China isn’t just to make a short trip to the moon. It is to build permanent human outposts on its most strategic location, the lunar south pole. And as both nations gear up to build stations there one day, it is looking likely that tensions in orbit will mirror those on Earth.

Some U.S. officials fear China is planning a land grab. Chinese officials suspect the same of the Americans and are teaming up with Russia and other friendly nations for its south-pole outpost. 

The outlines of a lunar iron curtain, in which rival superpowers and their allies jockey to exploit the moon’s strategic importance, are already emerging. [Source]

As Stephen Chen reported for the South China Morning Post, China has for the first time begun speaking in terms of a race for the moon with the U.S.:

In a new strategic lunar plan, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has defined the United States as a competitor for the first time, signifying a big shift from the nation’s long-held discreet space policy to a position of rapidly growing strength.

[…] “In the historical context of [the Cold War], the race to demonstrate superior political strength made lunar exploration unsustainable,” the plan said. 

“It is foreseeable that in the next 20 to 30 years, China’s International Lunar Research Station and the US Artemis programme will compete in terms of technology and operational efficiency on the same historical stage and at the same geographical location (the south pole of the moon),” it said.

[…] “And countries such as the United States do not have a distinct edge in this.” [Source]

Among China’s plans for future lunar exploration are sending crewed missions to the moon by 2030, and then establishing a permanent research base at the lunar south pole. In May, Namrata Goswami described in The Diplomat the long-term strategic and geopolitical implications of China’s success in its space programs, which appear to challenge U.S. supremacy: 

The more China accomplishes in space, the more questions there are within the U.S. space community about legislation like the Wolfe Amendment of 2011, which bars NASA, the National Space Council, and the Office of Science and Technology in the White House from collaborating with Chinese state-funded space institutions. 

[…] The Chang’e 6 has another major strategic and geopolitical implication. It helps develop China’s legitimate power to establish the rules of the road moving forward for the Moon. It challenges a Western-led international order and offers the CCP-led China as a legitimate alternative. Toward this end, China has established the protocols to develop an International Lunar Research Station Cooperation Organization (ILRSCO), as per Wu Weiren. Member nations of the ILRS will sign onto these “principles of operation” on the Moon. 

[…] Notably, the ambitions for China’s lunar base far exceed the U.S. Artemis base camp on the Moon. For instance, China and Russia have announced that they are building a nuclear reactor on the Moon for nuclear energy power generation. While the China-Russia plans are to generate 1.5 MW of power for a 10-year design life, the Artemis base camp plans on generating only 40 kW of nuclear power. For instance, according to Space Policy Directive 6, issued by the Trump administration in December 2020, the United States should “demonstrate a fission power system on the surface of the Moon that is scalable to a power range of 40 kWe to support sustained Lunar presence and exploration of Mars.” [Source]

However, China’s space program does not simply revolve around the United States. China is the U.N. space agency’s top funder, and this week Liu Yunfeng, deputy director of the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) international cooperation department, announced that CNSA had signed cooperation documents with more than ten countries and international organizations on the International Lunar Research Station project. In January, Marc Julienne, the head of China research for the French Institute of International Relations, wrote a book chapter highlighting China’s growing partnerships with countries in the Global South that are intended to advance its space strategy:

[O]ne of China’s first goals is to “use outer space peacefully, maintain outer space security, promote the construction of a community with a shared future for mankind in the field of outer space and benefit all mankind”. To support this human-centric narrative, China needs international support and partners. Therefore, Beijing is promoting various initiatives aimed at developing countries and opening its programmes to international cooperation.

Xi Jinping’s signature global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was extended to space in 2016 with the “BRI Space Information Corridor” (BRISIC, “一带一路”空间信 息走廊). The main goal of BRISIC is to provide services to countries along the Road, open new markets to the Chinese space industry, and promote development and people-to-people exchange. While BRISIC is still present in Chinese official documents, such as the 2021 white paper on space activities and the 2023 white paper on the BRI, the concept is less frequently employed today than it used to be. In recent years, the focus has shifted to the broader and blurrier concept of the “Digital Silk Road” (数字丝绸之路). 

BRISIC-labelled or not, space cooperation with developing countries focuses on two approaches: providing space services (communication, remote sensing, navigation) and selling space assets (satellites, ground stations, industrial base, training).

[…] Beijing is also willing to provide space systems and help countries develop their own space industries. Over the last twenty years, China has been launching satellites for the use of other countries, like Nigeria, Pakistan, Venezuela, Laos or Bolivia. Most recently, China has been deepening ties with Egypt. It built the Satellite Assembly, Integration, and Test Centre (AITC) in Cairo, which opened in 2023. The first satellite to be assembled at the AITC is the Chinese-funded MisrSat-2 remote sensing satellite, which served as a training platform for Egyptian engineers, with the assistance of China. MisrSat-2 was successfully launched from China on December 4th, and two days later Egypt formally joined ILRS. Egypt is now one of China’s most prominent space partners, and Beijing wants to make it a model of space cooperation to be replicated with other Arab and African countries. In July 2021, while construction was still underway, the AITC hosted a training session for 17 engineers from Nigeria, Sudan, Ghana, Uganda and Kenya. [Source]

Despite the success of China’s endeavors in space, Chinese citizens are occasionally forced to bear the negative consequences. On Saturday, China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern Sichuan launched a Space Variable Objects Monitor satellite, with instruments developed by Chinese and French engineers, that will be used to monitor gamma-ray bursts. Chinese state media hailed the launch as a success, but as Nectar Gan, Yong Xiong, and Isaac Yee reported for CNN, multiple videos that circulated online showed toxic debris from the rocket falling over a village in Guizhou, and censors and local authorities tried to cover up the damage:

Some videos had been taken down by Monday afternoon.

[…] In a now-deleted government notice reposted by a local villager shortly after the launch, authorities said that Xinba Town, near Xianqiao village, was going to carry out a “rocket debris recovery mission” from 2:45 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. local time on Saturday.

Residents were asked to leave their homes and other buildings an hour before the launch and scatter out in more open areas to observe the sky. They were warned to keep away from the debris to prevent harm from “toxic gas and explosion,” according to the notice.

Residents were also “strictly forbidden” to take photos of the debris or “spread relevant videos online,” the notice said. [Source]

This is far from the first time residents in the region were at the tail end of China’s space ambitions. Before the completion of a $178 million project to build a massive radio telescope in 2016, state media announced that over 9,000 Guizhou residents would be forcibly “evacuated” from their homes to accommodate the project. Debris from Chinese rocket launches has also crashed in rural villages in Gansu in 2013, in Fuquan county in Guizhou in 2018, and in Sichuan in 2019. In 2020, debris from a Chinese rocket crashed into two villages in the Ivory Coast. Falling space debris can be a potential hazard anywhere, but the odds are shorter in parts of China due to the inland location of its Xichang launch facility, which was initially selected for reasons of strategic security rather than launch safety.