Significance of China’s moon mission

I wrote the following analysis for and China Pictorial. A big thank you to Mithila Phadke for the opportunity and for working on the text to make it sharper and more readable.

Beyond the Far Side

China has always publicly advocated for the peaceful use of outer space. It adopted its current Constitution in 1982 and ratified the UN Outer Space Treaty (OST) in 1983. And since 1985, it has been working together with the US and the UK, among other countries, to develop space technologies.
But for this early eagerness, China still lacks a space law, especially one that can mediate between domestic ambitions and the requirements of multilateral instruments like the OST.
In fact, it has been difficult to balance China’s publicised stance with its activities. It began its space programme in the 1950s, after a period of civil unrest and during one of economic instability. It had no option but to go it independently.
The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, so China’s space ambitions from the start were linked to its military’s purpose: to safeguard the country’s borders and to maintain its independence during the Cold War. After a formal start in 1956, it launched its first satellite to space in 1970. Until the early 1990s, its operations were overseen by the country’s military leaders.
Today, it is an elite spacefaring nation, with an operational heavy-lift launch vehicle, a space station and crewed spaceflight programmes, a functional collaboration with a dozen world-class universities around the country and a flourishing private space sector.
Of course, it also has a space science division but it isn’t quite as expansive or full-fledged as its space technologies counterpart. Together with its failure to distinguish between civilian and military space aspirations, its capabilities are thus seen as a demonstration of its power more than of its technical prowess. The centrality of spacefaring assets in its 2015 military reform under President Xi Jinping attests to this.
Its Moon missions have only bolstered this image. When its Chang’e 4 mission deployed a rover on the far side on January 3, observers were surprised. The Chinese space agency aims to build an ‘outpost’ on the Moon’s south pole. As futuristic as that sounds, Chang’e 4’s success was a reminder that China might just achieve that goal in the 2030s, with the complicated mission profile attesting to the country’s capabilities.
Since the first Chang’e mission in 2007, China has sent two orbiters, two landers, two rovers, and is expected to undertake two sample-return missions by 2021. Three decades from orbiter to outpost is bristling.
At the same time, China’s cislunar and lunar missions can’t be written off entirely as pilots to greater non-lunar endeavours. The Moon is not simply a springboard. Although crewed lunar missions ceased to be of interest in the 1990s, the natural satellite has been reborn as a ‘superpower destination’.
In November, NASA announced the selection of nine companies to “deliver services to the lunar surface”, starting as soon as 2019. Although the organisation’s chief called it the first step to “feed forward to Mars”, it still involves long-term scientific explorations of the body itself.
India is another country interested in the Moon, and its trajectory to the body and beyond is very similar to China’s. In fact, Chandrayaan 2 will land on the Moon at a spot close to where Chang’e 4 did, exploring a similar region with similar instruments. Both countries have also announced a similar suite of interplanetary missions and have built or are building capabilities that will allow them to launch both very heavy and very light satellites, send humans to space and ultimately to the Moon, and colonise Mars in the (not so) distant future.
The two countries are clearly locked in a space race that reflects the polarisation of powers on ground. Asia itself boasts of two major space cooperation organisations, led by China and Japan, with little collaboration between them. No points for guessing which side India is on.
In this context, India-China cooperation in space is highly unlikely, especially where potential military applications are concerned. In fact, it is possible India is paying more attention to space diplomacy only because China is, and getting a move on its human spaceflight programme – after many years of dismissing its value – because of the possibility of a Chinese space station in low-Earth orbit by 2024.
However, there remains one area where cooperation is still possible, not least because more than half of all countries to have independently developed spaceflight are from Asia, and because at least seven other countries from around the world are keen to get back to the Moon. If India, China and Japan join hands, they can effectively represent a conglomerate of 15 nations that can set the terms of the world’s return to the Moon.
And it is here that the OST, and China’s lack of a space law, becomes relevant. After NASA shut down its Space Shuttle programme in the 1990s, it hasn’t had the ability to launch astronauts to space, let alone to the Moon, and was in the outrageous situation of using Russian rockets to access the International Space Station. In effect, its choices had passively set up a gatekeeping situation.
It’s likely that China plans to do the same with the Moon. The OST is still in effect but it has become outmoded. It doesn’t have clear answers about who can own off-world resources and how their trade should be managed. In this framework, China has an opportunity to be the country that gets to decide, in a manner of speaking, who can access which lunar resource depending on their relationship with China on Earth, and lead the way for India and Japan as well.
This is only to be expected. Space exploration has a long way to go until it is completely democratic, thanks mostly to the cost and technological maturity it demands. Until then, China – as much as India, the US or Russia – will seek to extend its diplomacy where its rovers go, and build up spatio-economic leverage in this new world order.
The incentive here would be that other actors wouldn’t even have to want to go to Mars, which is the way Moon missions are justified at first. Instead, China could simply provide access to space like a PaaS endeavour, ‘unlocking’ access to the cislunar region together with its attendant prospects of space-rock mining, Moon-based manufacturing and off-world research.