China’s space ambition – to the moon and beyond

China has ambitious plans for its space program, that encompass a ‘China Space Dream’ which would see it become the world’s leading space power by 2045, and challenge the traditional leadership in space of the United States from the 2030s. The Space Dream extends from the edge of space, in low-Earth Orbit, to the Moon and beyond, and has a focus on exploiting the economic wealth within resources on and near the moon. The United States will not cede this region – akin to the maritime ‘blue water’ of Earth’s oceans – and the potential for intensifying competition in space is clearly apparent.

On the long march to a Chinese Space Dream

China’s space future has just enjoyed a major win with the successful lift off of its Long March 5B heavy launcher on May 5, 2020. The Long-March 5B launch from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan island carried aloft a new spacecraft for crewed missions, capable of carrying up to six astronauts. This is China’s latest step towards achieving its ‘Space Dream’, which will take an important step forward with the establishment of its first space station in orbit by 2022, and looks towards eventual crewed missions to the Moon by the 2030s. 

There is no ‘space race’ between the United States and China now, in the sense of the Cold War era space race between the Soviet Union and the United States to reach the Moon. Instead, China’s approach to space exploration is one of steady forward progress — from Beijing’s perspective it is a marathon rather than a sprint. China is clearly starting from behind in many respects, but it is steadily making up lost ground, at least in terms of technological progress. And they do have a clearly ambitious future vision

The China Space Dream would establish China as the world’s leading space power in the 2030s – knocking the United States off that pedestal. This would reinforce Beijing’s preferred narrative of US strategic decline in the face of a rising and rejuvenated China as the new middle kingdom for the twenty-first century. This dream is an essential part of Xi Jinping’s broader China Dream. 

That space dream is not limited to low earth orbit, but extends to the Moon and beyond. The focus is on exploiting space-based resources on the lunar surface, and on near-Earth asteroids accessible from the Moon’s shallow gravity well. This is driven by both strategic and economic motivations for Beijing. In the same way that the terrestrial Belt and Road Initiative is about sustaining China’s rise through growing global political influence, ensuring access to resources, and controlling strategically important locations, the Chinese space dream seeks to ensure that China becomes the dominant power in space by 2045. 

Responding in part to China’s emerging space ambitions, the Trump Administration has, under Space Policy Directive 1 in December 2017, authorised NASA to refocus on a return of astronauts to the Moon by late 2024 under Project Artemis. On April 6, Trump signed a new Executive Order on the recovery and use of space resources. Moreover, the White House is reportedly drafting a legal document known as the Artemis Accords to establish ‘safety zones’ surrounding future moon bases, and a legal framework for ownership of lunar based resources.

Thus, the two major global superpowers have ambitious plans in space, including implicit resource competition on the Moon. A key issue is what impact that will have here on Earth. The Moon is approximately 378,000 km from Earth, and although some space policy analysts (myself included) have thought about it as a ‘high ground’ in ‘astrostrategic’ terms, Bleddyn Bowen makes a strong case that control of the Moon doesn’t necessarily translate into military advantage in a future terrestrial conflict. 

Brown vs Blue water visions in Space

That is driving policy debate over the prioritisation of US military space development under its new Space Force. Based upon an analogy to the maritime domains of the ‘brown water’ – the region close to Earth akin to the coastal littoral, and blue water region – from the Earth to the Moon – akin to Earth’s far seas, a debate over strategy in space has gathered pace. 

The ‘brown water’ school argues for a focus on the near-Earth region, out to geosynchronous orbit (GEO) at 36,500km while the ‘blue water’ school promotes an astrostrategic perspective that emphasises the importance of the Moon and the ‘Cislunar’ (between Earth and the Moon) environment. The Brown Water perspective, is promoted by leading space policy analyst Brian Weeden, and focuses on the growing challenge posed by Chinese and Russian counterspace capabilities that could be employed between Lower-Earth Orbit (LEO) and GEO to directly threaten US satellites in the short term. These, if used decisively, could leave US forces deaf, dumb and blind in a military conflict.  

The Blue Water vision promotes an objective of dominating the cislunar environment – the region on and around the Moon, and the region between Earth and Moon, to protect space commerce and control key resources on what blue water proponents argue is a natural ‘high ground’.  It is argued strongly within the US Air Force Space Command ‘Space 2060’ policy document, and by space policy analysts such as Peter Garretson and Namrata Goswami

This debate will strongly shape the future role and capability of the new US Space Force, and the Trump Administration’s clear determination to ensure the US control of lunar resources, suggests the Blue Water school resonates more clearly within the Oval Office.

The China Space Dream and a new space race

China will watch this debate with interest, as US efforts to return to the Moon gather pace. It won’t be content to allow US control of lunar resources or be willing to cede authority to shape the regulatory and legal arrangements for accessing, securing and controlling resource rich areas on and around the Moon. We can expect intensified diplomatic activity within international space bodies such as the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs and in Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues on these issues. 

In addition, the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is already developing the means to undertake a broad range of military space activities in the brown-water region between LEO and GEO. With the rise of a blue water vision, it will start to think about operations and capabilities out at Cislunar space. That could generate new types of capability development, and greater urgency in getting Chinese Taikonauts to the lunar surface sooner than vaguely worded statements suggesting the mid-2030s. 

A US-China space race isn’t on yet – but it may not be far off.