On the 1st of December, 2020, the Chinese news channel, CCTV-13, tweeted out a 30-second clip that showed the Chang'e 5 lander landing on the moon's surface. The clip ends with the lander casting a shadow on the moon's surface, perhaps fittingly, as China raises its stakes in the 'Global Space Race 2.0'. The chief designer of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), Ouyang Ziyuan had said in an interview in 2002 that one major goal of the programme was to bring Lunar samples back to China for analysis, and 18 years later, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has achieved that goal.


Chang'e 5 follows the success of its predecessors, Chang'e 4 and Chang'e 3, and is designated to return lunar samples to Earth for the first time since Russia's Luna 24 mission in 1976. The Chang'e 5 is a multi-staged mission consisting of orbiter, lander, ascender and returner modules. It was launched on 23rd November 2020, atop China's Long March 5 rocket, and it reached the lunar orbit on 28th November. The orbiter and the return vehicle kept orbiting the moon after the lander and the ascender separated from it on 29th November. The mission aimed to bring approximately 2kg of lunar dirt after landing near the Mons Rumker mountain in the Oceanus Procellarum (Sea of Storms) plains. With 2kg of lunar rocks and soil in tow, the returner module of Chang'e 5 successfully landed in Siziwang Banner in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. 


Contextualizing the Chang'e 5 mission


While the scientific and the space community's focus will be on retrieving lunar samples from a relatively new geographical formation like Mons Rumker, strategists, and security experts have been closely watching the mission for very different reasons. Chang'e 5 is crucial to China because it will serve as the foundation for CLEP's future phases. The success of the incredibly complex mission seems to have given China immense confidence to further pursue its objectives regarding the moon. Chang'e 6 will follow Chang’e 5 with a sample return mission from the Lunar South Pole in 2024. Subsequently, Chang'e 7 will carry out a comprehensive survey of the Lunar South Pole in 2030, and Chang'e 8 will lay the foundations for China's Lunar Research base on the moon by 2036. The Chief Designer of CLEP, Wu Weiren, previously mentioned how these Lunar programmes' ultimate aim is a permanent Chinese settlement on the moon. Ouyang Ziyuan had stated, "Whoever first conquers the Moon will benefit first," and added, "The Moon could serve as a new and tremendous supplier of energy and resources for human beings." The resources on the moon are certainly a motivator for China. In addition to Titanium and water-ice, the moon's surface is also estimated to have around 1.1 million metric tonnes of Helium-3. Extraction of Helium-3 could fuel a new generation of nuclear fusion power plants back on Earth. The Artemis Project of the US, which aims to put Americans back on the Moon, estimates the potential economic value of Helium 3 to be around $3billion . This makes its extraction a lucrative venture for China as it could serve its own as well as the world’s future energy needs. 


A lunar base on the moon will serve as a launch point for future deep space missions, not to mention a better understanding of all the lunar surface resources necessary for the purpose, including, but not limited to water. China's 2016 White Paper on Space Activities has recognized the moon's significance from a strategic perspective. It also recognized the area between the Earth and moon as a critical space to access and dominate. Further, the Paper goes on to say that, "The Chinese government takes space industry as an important part of the Nation's developmental strategy, and adheres to the principle of exploration and utilization of outer space for peaceful purposes...to explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly", articulating its vision for space exploration.


Ye Peijan, Chief commander of the CLEP, had remarked, "...the universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we do not go there now, even though we can do so, we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, they will take over, and you will not be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough." This statement suggests that China sees space as politically and strategically essential and not just limited to scientific exploration. The Diaoyu and Huangyan Islands’ references indicate that the moon and mars are similar to the strategically located contested islands in the South China Sea for China. Like Mackinder's 20th Century ideas about geopolitics (where new technologies were transforming control over geography and creating power hierarchies), China's desire and drive to control the moon's strategically important location and resources to gain a significant advantage over other states is on the radar of many strategists. The vision articulated by Ye is long term. Just as the 'first island chain' is critical to China's maritime security, control over the space within the earth’s vicinity will significantly impact China's strategic interests in the coming decades. Looking at the rate of space technology's progress and lower entry barriers, especially cost, space control looks set to extend beyond the geostationary orbit (GEO). It will intensify as more discoveries signal and confirm the moon's and other celestial bodies' strategic wealth and value. According to Ye's vision, it is clear that either China will control the moon and the associated space or others will. 


The China-US Geopolitical Rivalry in Outer Space


Space is not insulated from human competition and power conflicts. As it becomes more congested and competitive, new rivalries are being generated in this domain. President Xi Jinping established a separate military force which has a space component integrated into it, the PLASSF (PLA Strategic Support Force), on 31st December 2015. Xi emphasized that the PLA Strategic Support Force is a new-type combat force to maintain national security and a significant growth point of the PLA's combat capabilities. The force debuted on China's military day parade in 2019, with the well-defined mandate of creating synergy between China's space, cyber and electronic warfare. 


The United States Space Force (USSF), established by the Donald Trump administration, seems to be on a collision course with China's PLASSF. The Space Force was carved out of the Air Force (Air Force Space command) as a separate branch of the US Armed Forces in 2019. The US Air Force split from the US Army in 1947, driven by the maturing technology and strategic importance of the air domain, and the establishment of the USSF seems to be following a similar path. While there have been legitimate criticisms of the Space Force's establishment – an already stretched defense budget, complicated military organization, and duplicate structures, it would be unwise to reject the idea of Space Force outright. The Space Force is an idea whose time has come, and while it brings risks, there are also several opportunities to take advantage. The US could very well find itself in a new space race with China, as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While the origins of the space race lay in the ballistic missile-based nuclear arms race, today, it can be seen that the United States and China are competing in military, economy, and technology fields. 


Another interesting aspect to consider will be the fate of the negotiations on PAROS (Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space) and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. A concern emerging among strategists is the increasing strain under which the Outer Space Treaty will come under in the backdrop of expanding space competition. The International space law, in its present form, does not prevent the militarization of space. Neither has the international move to prevent space weaponization bore any fruit yet. This competition between the US and China will pose a significant challenge to international co-operation in space as two major powers seek to maximize their interests in this relatively new frontier. 


China is rapidly developing space power and capability under the leadership of Xi Jinping and the strategic and scientific leadership of China. Heavy investment across the board in the space sector, encouragement to private players to collaborate with the military, reusability, independent launch capacity, Anti-Satellite weapon, and massive progress in allied and associated technologies (3D printing, AI, and 5G) have propelled China into the pole position to take its place as a potential superpower in the coming decades. A single-minded, hyper-focused government with a unified vision also gives China an edge over the United States, whose space vision keeps relatively fluctuating depending on the government of the day and public sentiment. 


For Xi, if China is to take the lead in the global order, investing in space capacity, looking at the long-term, is the biggest priority. The Chang'e lunar missions are critical to China's moon dreams, where they aim to build a presence and expand capacity. Capturing the moon's resources will augment China's cislunar and lunar surface capabilities and play an important role in future deep-space missions. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation also highlighted the moon's economic potential by pledging to establish a $10 trillion Earth-Moon space economic zone by 2050. However, as of now, this is still a distant dream. 


The United States is no stranger to competition in the space domain, but this time it is fighting against an adversary that can compete with it on multiple fronts. It would be prudent that the US government throws its weight (and funds) behind NASA and augment the United States' space capabilities. It will be interesting to see the US Space Force's evolution and what form it takes in the coming years. 



Halford Mackinder wrote ‘The Round World and Winning of Peace’ in the backdrop of Germany and the Soviet Union engaged in a war for control of the ‘heartland’. In that piece, he wrote about the “monsoon lands of India and China” which he described as “a thousand million people of ancient oriental civilization” that will “grow to prosperity” and balance the remaining great geographical regions. While China emerged as another pole of the world after the collapse of the Soviets, it is now time for India to take the lead and help facilitate a sustainable balance in the space domain. India along with other space faring nations must agree on a set of principles which constitute ‘good conduct’ in outer space. It would be in India’s interest to pursue a peaceful space front, as it is of prime importance to it strategically. India already depends on the meteorological and geospatial data from space for its disaster management and agricultural needs, with multilateral efforts like joint satellite launches, SAARC satellite, etc. it also increases the number of stakeholders whose interests align with India’s. ISRO has been steadily adding ambitious projects to its mission list as it looks to become an elite space power. While ANTRIX has brought in much needed funds and commercial success, India’s Kinetic-kill ASAT, Shakti, elevates it to an exclusive club of being only the fourth country capable of destroying an enemy satellite. The world is aware of India’s responsible behavior when it comes to Nuclear weapons and it will expect the same when it comes to India’s use of its ASAT weapon. This firepower will help India be considered a potent balancer of power in space, as the competition between the US and China heats up. Mackinder wrote, “A balanced globe of human beings…and happy because balanced thus free”, India will be expected to take the lead in the balancing of outer space, because a balanced outer space, will be a free outer space.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.