The New Geopolitics of Space: Skyrocketing Tensions

Geopolitics moves into space: the heads of the space agencies of China and Russia signed a memorandum on the 9th of March to join forces in the construction of an outpost on the Moon. As stated by Zhang Kejian, head of the CNSA (China National Space Administration) and Dmitry Rogozin, director-general of Roscosmo, the two agencies have committed to offering equal access to any nation that is willing to take part in the project. But what might the geopolitical implications of such a choice be?

In the course of a virtual meeting, the two agencies signed a cooperation agreement to create the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), a lunar base to be stationed either on the surface of the planet or in orbit, to conduct multidisciplinary scientific research. In truth, the agreement had long been announced and the signing is therefore nothing new for international observers. What is interesting to notice, however, is how cooperation in space is a direct consequence of geopolitical evolution on planet Earth.

For years, Russia and China have deepened their relations regarding the conquest of the cosmos. Since 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and rising tensions between Moscow and the West, and, especially after 2017, considering the willingness of the US to enter into more or less direct political and economic confrontation with Beijing, the two countries have developed close ties in many strategic sectors. Pushed by the establishment of the Space Force and the launch of the Artemis lunar program sponsored by the former American president, talks between Moscow and Beijing have accelerated. And even though Joe Biden has now replaced Trump, he has not, however, brought any change to the development of these two initiatives and has, therefore, shown no signs of a different US understanding of Sino-Russian cooperation.

Beyond a superficial reading, it is necessary to contextualize this event, analyzing the combination of several geopolitical issues that brought it to life. The truth is that there is a spatial dualism between opposing blocks, but this comes with potential inherent frailties, which must not be overlooked. Which ones? The race to the moon of the 21st century, exactly like that of the 20th, mirrors the confrontation between two terrestrial powers, the US and China in this case. Beijing and Washington live a heated conflict in which space, both the one that is closest to the Earth and the one surrounding far-distant planets, has come to represent nothing more than a mediatic event, a flashy spearhead useful for showcasing their power and technological supremacy to the rest of the world.

Both the US and China, however, need alliances to overpower the opponent, and here the inherent frailties are revealed. Alliances are not without pitfalls. Take for example Moscow: Russia is militarily and technologically powerful, but it is not economically healthy. Until 2008 the country was growing by an average of 7% per year, but it has ever since collapsed to just 1%, entering full stagnation in 2014. The Coronavirus and the oil price war have only contributed to pushing it into a deeper economic crisis, and it won’t be easy now for Putin to find hundreds of billions of dollars without asking Beijing to pay for it.

On the other side, Japan stands firmly with the USA and participates in the Artemis lunar program. It has strengthened its budget for space reaching the record figure of almost 5 billion US dollars, an increase of more than 23,1% compared to last year. The expansionist policy of Beijing has fundamentally worried the Japanese government, pushing the Ministry of Defence to spend 55,3 billion yen for space activities to consolidate the activities of the newly built “Space Operations Squadron” of the armed forces.

Who’s trudging along behind? The EU, which seems to enjoy living in the all-encompassing bubble it has built for itself. Even though the EU Commission reported that the EU was going to pursue its own autonomous and aggressive space strategy to counter US and Chinese technological innovations already during the 13th European Space Conference,  the declaration of intent has only translated into fragmented, incohesive and impractical steps. For example, the ESA signed a memorandum of understanding with Nasa to establish a first legal framework for cooperation on the Lunar Getaway, which is a pillar of the Artemis program, but has not joined the whole agreement. The only European state to have done so was Italy, making it clear that Europe is still far from the unity so celebrated by representatives in Brussels.

France for example, which is a nuclear and space power in its own right, has decided to play a game of geopolitical counterweights on both fronts. On the one hand, it reaffirms its bilateral cooperation with China, and on the other, it stands as the space bulwark of the Atlantic alliance. Paris has obtained to host the Space Center of the Nata in Toulouse, a fundamental part of the newly constituted Commandement de l’espace (Cde), which will employ over 500 experts by 2025. President Emmanuel Macron has attended the Asterx exercise at the Cde, asking officials from the army and Air Force to carry out a cybernetic test to measure the response capabilities of French satellites in the event of an attack. Therefore, in a world increasingly polarized and divided into two global political and economic spheres, France is aiming for tactical multilateralism by de facto running for EU military space leadership.

To this, also competition from private companies should be added. In early March, for example, Nasa decided to fly one of its astronauts with a taxi-flight operated by the private commercial company Axiom Space, which bought it from Roscosmos. In return, Nasa will give Axiom a place on its mission. This is the first time that a private company has been involved so directly, and many observers have wondered whether this is anticipatory of different future management of the ISS, in which Russian participation could even be re-discussed.

Luca Giulini