CHINA’S RACE FOR LUNAR CONQUEST AND OUTER SPACE MINING

In the 21st century, China has undeniably become a fully-fledged spacefaring power. From its humble beginnings in the 1970s, the Chinese space programme has now become one of the most advanced in the world. The state has been investing heavily in the development of space technologies. Indeed, to achieve the ‘China Dream’ of rejuvenation of the nation it is necessary to develop a strong space programme. The moon figures as arguably the most crucial element of said programme, but why has it become imperative for the CCP to establish a presence on lunar soil?

Policy-making in China is geared toward boosting the Party’s legitimacy and strength, with technological and scientific successes becoming part and parcel of the political system’s successes. Indeed, the notion of techno-nationalism has been used to describe Xi Jinping’s endeavour to make technological advancement a parameter of nationalist sentiment. In May 2015, China launched its ‘made in China 2025’ plan, aiming to turn the CCP into a world leader in ten key technologies (including AI, blockchain, and quantum mechanics). This was spurred, in part, by Trump’s trade war and the subsequent fear of losing access to important technologies. Xi’s discourses stress the necessity for both state and society to commit to expensive space programmes. One notable instance is Xi’s likening of “the spirit of aerospace” to the “spirit of the long march,” which was key to the establishment of the PRC in 1949. Thus, China’s ‘Space Dream’ has become a new core interest of the nation. 

Innovation is often stressed as being crucial to turning the nation into an advanced space power, and China is in the process of building an orbital space station. Just a few days ago, the core module for the space station passed the mandatory flight acceptance review. Marking the first step in the assembly of the three-module space station, there are 11 planned missions to achieve its completion. These will unfold over a two year period, with China aiming to have the station up and running by 2022. These missions will be carrying lab elements, cargo, and astronauts. The space station is expected to be around a sixth of the International Space Station (ISS). 

Chinese space and moon ambitions are not a novelty of the Xi era, with the China Lunar Exploration Programme (CLEP) first being formulated back in 2004. Named after the Chinese moon goddess Chang’E, successive missions had as purpose the sampling of the lunar environment. The recently returned Chang’E 5 mission brought back soil and debris, meant for the study of lunar mineralogy and petrology. Finding an efficient way to exploit lunar resources is crucial for the PRC, as the country is working on developing key technologies to exploit said resources and turn them into fuel to facilitate deep-space exploration

A potential avenue to achieve said goal is to build a Lunar Research Station, through the use of 3D printing technology. The station would be used to work on the development of space science and related applications (i.e. fuel), as well as the long term stay of “taikonauts” on the moon. Indeed, it would become a pit stop for refueling before blasting off into deeper space. In 2019, the Chang’E 4 probe left a tin containing seeds and silkworm eggson the moon, marking the first biological experiment to take place on the earth’s very own satellite. At the time, mission chief Liu Hanlong explained China was studying whether it would be possible to grow food and resources for outerspace travellers. The experiment was unsuccessful, but it made for an interesting example of China’s ambitions.  

In 2017 the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology – the leading SOE rocket developer and manufacturer in the PRC – set forth the ambitions of the country for the next thirty years. By 2040, scientists hope to have developed nuclear-powered space shuttles, to be able to mine resources from asteroids; and to build solar power plants in space. The so-called “nuclear fleet” would have for purpose to facilitate interplanetary flights, offer commercial exploration of outer space, and most importantly be able to mine natural resources in space. These ambitions are not unique to China, and outerspace has the potential to become the next theatre for great power competition. Many states, the US included, have plans of mining satellites. Indeed, the high concentration of natural resources on space objects are valued in trillions. Both China and India have mentioned the idea of extracting Helium-3 from the earth’s natural satellite. Moreover, geologists believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel, and precious metals in much higher concentrations than those found on earth.

In mid-2020, the Trump administration negotiated the Artemis Accords in pursuit of space commercialisation. Spearheaded by NASA, it was signed in October 2020 by Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, and the United Emirates. Its purpose is “to promote the sustainable and beneficial use of space for all humankind,” and lays out a shared vision for the peaceful use of space in accordance with international law. The Accords lay out principles and requirements regarding space activities, which include the sharing of data, commitment to provide emergencyy assistance to other nations, and to have historical sites preserved as artifacts. This enterprise has further alienated China and Russia, arguably causing the US to miss out on the economic opportunity it seeks and further exacerbating an already existing security threat. Indeed, the Artemis Accords have driven China and Russia closer together, with the two countries announcing they could collaborate on building a joint research base on the Moon. 

The accords have been deemed in state media as an attempt from a self-interested US to appropriate outer space and rob China from its opportunities. Moreover Dmitry Rogozin, chief of Roscosmos, compared the coalition to an outerspace NATO alliance. Experts warn that the US’ increasing attempts at dominating “extra-terrestrial commerce” could spur conflict with Russia and China. The lack of legislation governing outerspace is likely to become an increasingly pressing issue, given the interest of world powers and private actors to explore deep space exploration and pursue resource mining. Nevertheless, Sino-American relations could see a restoration of compromise and dialogue with a Biden administration. Both parties are likely aware that alienation will only impair their respective ambitions in space. 

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