The highest ground

What’s in space for China?

Malcolm Davis

Government and governance, International relations, National security, Science and technology | Asia, East Asia, The World

10 January 2019

China has its eyes firmly set on the final frontier, but other actors won’t let Beijing win the global space race willingly, Malcolm Davis writes.

Space advocates see the 2020s as the beginning of a new ‘golden age’ of space exploration, with greater numbers of nation states and commercial actors exploring the final frontier than ever before. A key element of this is the growing interest towards a human return to the Moon by US commercial companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, and national space actors.

China has ambitious lunar plans, and its recent successful landing of the Chang’e 4 probe containing the Yutu 2 rover on the far side of the Moon is a world first. China’s next steps include further unmanned lunar and Mars missions, as well as a crewed space station by 2022, and ultimately, ‘Taikonauts’ on the lunar surface by the 2030s.

Chang’e 4 is a great accomplishment for China’s space program that could provide new insights into the unexplored far side. It’s also generated a lot of debate about China’s ambitions in space, and the ‘astropolitical’ competition which could emerge between a rising China and the United States in the 21st century.

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That space is a key operational domain in 21st century for military affairs is not lost on China’s leaders, and China’s space activities have strong military dimensions. Ensuring access to space is essential for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to achieve its goals of force modernisation, including ‘informatisation’.

China’s development of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) in 2015 emphasised the importance of space in its military thinking. Its development of a suite of counterspace capabilities raises the prospect of China challenging an opponent’s access to space in the ‘near-Earth’ region between low earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO). Can that thinking extend to the Moon?

Having a presence in ‘Cislunar’ space – the region near the Moon – is important for accessing the resource wealth of the lunar surface. The Moon is rich in rare metals and is a key source of ‘Helium 3’ that could enable thermonuclear fusion power to be a commercial energy source on Earth.

There’s also water in the lunar regolith that would support a human presence on the surface, and act as a source of propellant for spacecraft operating around the inner solar system. The Moon can be envisaged as a filling station in the sky for making a self-sustaining space-faring civilisation economically viable and as a stepping stone to resource rich asteroids near Earth.

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The importance of ensuring access to, or at least having a dominant position, around the Moon and on its surface, is not lost on the head of the Chinese lunar exploration program, Ye Peijian who recently remarked:

“…the universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island [Scarborough Shoal]. If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if want to. This is reason enough.”

Ye’s perception of inevitable competition is not a lone voice. China’s military space doctrine doesn’t suggest that cooperation is their priority, but implies that they see space as a warfighting domain for denying US space superiority and assuring China’s access to space to support an informatised PLA. In coming decades, the Moon and Cislunar space would be a natural extension to the current doctrinal focus on ‘near Earth’ space between LEO and GEO for PLASSF, particularly if resource competition emerges between major powers and non-state actors on that highest ground.

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It is highly unlikely that the US, Japan and India, all of which have lunar ambitions – or commercial non-state actors – driven by a desire for profitable markets, would meekly defer to Chinese ambitions in this eventuality. Competition is bound to arise.

The key is to manage that competition. It would be better to emphasise new approaches that might reduce the incentive for competition to get out of hand. One idea proposed by Handmer is strategic space diplomacy that seeks to use ‘science diplomacy’ to build bridges and reduce risk of conflict.

Complementing that approach, enhanced space deterrence would seek to decrease the utility of counterspace capability, and raise potential cost for its use, opening up the prospect for space arms control. Both would be worth trying in the context of near Earth space security, and strategic competition beyond the near Earth region.

Strengthening international legal constraints such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) would also be a good thing. These may come under strain if strategic space competition between China and the US were to expand in the future.

We are not yet at a point where the two superpowers are contesting space dominance around the Moon. However China’s lunar ambitions are clear. As its space activities gather pace, don’t expect other actors to simply cede the highest ground to Beijing.

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