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7 September 2016

China’s ambitious space aspirations may sound like science fiction but, if realised, they could cause conflict over galactic resources. Namrata Goswami examines the challenges of codifying international law in outer space.

China’s space ambitions are impelled by a long-term resource acquisition strategy. By 2020, China aspires to have its own space station; by 2050, a commercial space-based solar power system in geo-synchronous orbit; and eventually a human settlement on the moon. The country is developing the capacity for asteroid and lunar mining, but in order to mine an asteroid potentially worth trillions of dollars establishing a longer, or perhaps even permanent, outer spatial presence is required.

Significantly, China’s 21st-century space goals transcend the short-term aim of ‘being first’ in space, to long-term investments that will directly benefit the Chinese economy. The key question is whether China’s space quest leads to conflict with other space-faring nations like the US. Understanding the nature of these three key Chinese space ambitions will provide a clue.

Space-based solar power

The big advantage of space-based solar power is constant access to the sun’s rays. The proposed system seeks to harness solar power using satellites then beam the energy back to receiving stations on earth using microwave technology. In March this year Zhang Bonan, the chief designer of manned space vehicles at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC), said that laboratory research to build space-based power stations in high orbit had begun in China. The plan will include placing a space-based solar power satellite about 35,000 kilometres above the earth, with an intended launch date somewhere between 2030 and 2050.

Lunar and asteroid mining

China’s next big space ambition is to extract resources like Titanium, Helium 3 and water from the lunar surface. According to Lt. General Zhang Yulin, deputy commander of the China Manned Space Program and deputy head of the Central Military Commission’s Equipment Development Department, “The earth-moon space will be strategically important for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. China’s Chang’e lunar exploration program is an ongoing robotic mission led by the China National Space Administration. The Chang’e 5 is scheduled to land an unmanned spaceship on the moon in 2017 with the aim of bringing back samples to earth for research. The Chang’e 4 mission is aiming to land on the far side of the moon by 2020.

Passing through the earth-moon space are half a million asteroids rich in platinum, titanium, iron and nickel, which are estimated to be worth trillions of dollars and have the potential to generate huge commercial profits. In 2015, the US Congress passed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that encourages private sector investments and entrepreneurship in space as well as establishing better regulatory mechanisms for such activities. This act provides assurance to private companies like Planetary Resources on property rights in space.

While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits any country from claiming space territory as sovereign territory, the treaty is rather vague with regard to space resource ownership. Taking its cue from the moon rocks that American astronauts brought back with them after the moon landing in 1969, the treaty appears to have adopted ‘first come, first served’ as the guiding principle. However, the US Space Act of 2015 is limited to US companies and China might feel differently about such a law. Or if space etiquette is indeed based on the principle of ‘first come, first served’, it could imply that if China gets to the lunar poles or an asteroid first, it can mine and own those resources. Interestingly, Chinese private interest in commercial space activities is growing. One Space, founded in 2015, plans to launch its own rocket by 2018.

Space station

China has invested heavily in developing its own space station by 2020. Named Tiangong (Heavenly Palace), it launched the Tiangong 1, a single module space lab, in 2011. The Tiangong 2 is to be launched in September this year and the Tiangong 3 in 2020.

The Tiangong orbital space station will support three astronauts for long-term stay. It will consist of a 20-tonne core module, as well as two research modules. Given the International Space Station is scheduled to retire by 2025, the Tiangong may be the only human space station we are left with. China’s state-funded space program is worth $ 11 billion, well behind US’s $40 billion investment but the lower labour costs in China guarantees a higher return on the money spent.

More on this: An increasingly assertive Beijing is demanding its place on the changing global stage. How should the world respond?

China’s ambitions to get to space and the ambiguity of the Outer Space Treaty make for a tricky situation. China may not accept US space laws and may propose an alternative set of laws. Some argue that future space laws could replicate the Laws of the Seas, where international waters, viewed as the common heritage of mankind, are open to all nations for fishing. However, fishing trawlers do not require long stays; asteroid and lunar mining will. Could there be a reciprocal arrangement between states similar to deep-seabed mining? Will nations collaborate for the common benefit of humankind? Ownership of resources from asteroid mining is no simple matter given their extraordinary potential value. Asteroid 2011 UW158 that flew by earth in June 2015 at a distance of 1.5 million miles was estimated to be worth USD $5 trillion in platinum resources alone.

In the next 50 years, a contest will also emerge over which value system becomes dominant for space-based resources: ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ or the ‘American model of free entrepreneurship’. There are at least two possible conflict scenarios which could strain diplomatic relations.

The first is if China passes its own version of the Asteroid Act codifying a non-interference zone for the moon and asteroids and establishing the basis of a claim as occupation in an affirmation of the ‘first come, first served’ principle laid down in the 2015 US Asteroid Act. Subsequently, in 2036, the Chinese manned lunar mission then successfully lands on the lunar pole, confirms the existence of billions of tonnes of water, and this leads to the construction of a human settlement established to mine the lunar ice. China claims a 100-mile non-interference zone around its settlement. A private space exploration company, such as Moon Express, with the permission of the US Government, successfully lands on the moon and seeks access to Shackleton Crater, which falls within the Chinese non-interference zone. China denies access citing their Asteroid Act provisions and conflict ensues.

The second is that by 2022, Chinese state funded and private companies have acquired the capacity to mine asteroids. In 2024, the Asteroid (long) rich in platinum worth USD $5 trillion flies near the lunar surface. Having previously surveilled and placed a beacon on it an American asteroid mining company could file for a license and receive permission from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to mine it. China’s One Space, not recognising the US claim, rushes to land on the asteroid and begin mining first. The US company disputes this move but China resorts to the ‘first come, first served’ principle of its 2018 legislation.

These are the kinds of scenarios we need to keep in mind when codifying international law on space resources. An un-coordinated ‘first come, first served’ approach by any nation creates the potential for strained diplomatic relations, particularly as earthbound resources become more scarce. China’s unique approach, oriented less towards prestige and more at resource exploitation, may strain relations more than others. Such a future is closer than we think and grows nearer every year.

Dr. Namrata Goswami is a Minerva Grantee, awarded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Views expressed here are solely her own.

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Goswami, Namrata. 2016. "Star Wars - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.