This article was originally published on The conversation. (opens in a new tab) The publication contributed the article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Editorials and Perspectives.
Svetla Ben Itzhak (opens in a new tab)Assistant Professor of Space and International Relations, Air University
R. Lincoln HinesAssistant Professor, West Space Seminar, Air University, Air University
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently expressed concerns about China’s goals in space, and in particular, that China would somehow claim ownership of the moon and prevent other countries to explore it. In an interview with a German newspaper (opens in a new tab)Nelson warned that “we must be very concerned about China landing on the moon and saying, ‘It’s up to us now and you stay out.’ “” China immediately denounced these claims as a “lie”. (opens in a new tab).”
This spat between the NASA administrator and Chinese government officials comes at a time when both nations are actively working on missions to the Moon – and China has not shied away from its lunar aspirations.
In 2019, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. That same year, China and Russia announced joint plans (opens in a new tab) reach the south pole of the moon by 2026. And some Chinese official and government documents (opens in a new tab) expressed their intention to build (opens in a new tab) a permanent crewed international lunar research station by 2027 (opens in a new tab).
There is a big difference between China – or any state for that matter – establishing a moon base and “taking over” the moon. As two academics who study space security and the Chinese space program, we believe that neither China nor any other nation is likely to conquer the Moon in the near future. This is not only illegal, it is also technologically daunting – the costs of such an endeavor would be extremely high, while the potential gains would be uncertain.
Related: China presents ambitious space plans for the next 5 years
China is limited by international space law
Legally, China cannot seize the Moon because it is against current international space law. The Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states (opens in a new tab) that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by use or occupation, or by any other means” (Article II (opens in a new tab)). Legal scholars have debated the exact meaning of “the appropriation (opens in a new tab)“, but on a literal interpretation, the treaty indicates that no country can take possession of the moon and declare it as an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives. If China tried to do so, it would risk international condemnation and a potential international response.
Although no country can claim ownership of the moon, Article I (opens in a new tab) of the Outer Space Treaty allows any State to explore and use outer space and celestial bodies. China will not be the only visitor (opens in a new tab) at the south pole of the moon in the near future. The US-led Artemis Accords (opens in a new tab) is a group of 20 countries (opens in a new tab) which plans to return humans to the moon by 2025, which will include the establishment of a lunar surface research station and an orbiting support space station called Gateway with a planned launch in November 2024 (opens in a new tab).
Even though no country can legally claim sovereignty over the moon, it is possible that China, or any other country, may attempt to gradually establish de facto control over strategically important areas through a strategy known as ” slicing salami”. (opens in a new tab). “This practice involves taking small incremental steps to achieve a big change: individually these steps do not warrant a strong response, but their cumulative effect adds up to significant developments and increased control. China has recently used this strategy in the South and East China Seas (opens in a new tab). Yet such a strategy takes time and can be tackled.
Controlling the moon is hard
With an area of almost 14.6 million square miles (39 million square kilometres) – almost five times the area of Australia (opens in a new tab) — any control of the moon would be temporary and localized.
More plausibly, China could attempt to secure control of specific lunar areas that have strategic value, such as lunar craters with higher concentrations of water ice. The ice on the moon is important because it will provide humans with water that would not need to be shipped from Earth. Ice can also serve as a vital source of oxygen and hydrogen, which could be used as rocket fuel. In short, water ice is critical to ensuring the long-term sustainability and survivability of any mission to the moon or beyond.
Securing and enforcing control of strategic lunar areas would require substantial financial investments and long-term efforts. And no country could do that without everyone noticing.
Does China have the resources and capabilities?
China is investing heavily in space. In 2021, it led the number of orbital launches with a total of 55 (opens in a new tab) compared to 51 in the United States. China is also in the top three (opens in a new tab) in the deployment of spacecraft for 2021. The Chinese space company StarNet plans a megaconstellation of 12,992 satellites (opens in a new tab)and the country has nearly completed the construction of the Tiangong space station.
Going to the moon is expensive (opens in a new tab); “taking control” of the moon would be much more so. China’s space budget – estimated at $13 billion in 2020 (opens in a new tab) – is only about half that of NASA (opens in a new tab). The United States and China both increased their space budgets in 2020, the United States by 5.6% and China by 17.1% compared to the previous year. But even with increased spending, China doesn’t seem to be investing the money needed to carry out the costly, audacious and uncertain mission to “take control” of the moon.
If China took control of part of the moon, it would be a risky, costly and extremely provocative action. China would risk further tarnishing its international image by breaking international law, and it could invite retaliation. All this for uncertain gains that remain to be determined.
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