On December 16, a Chinese capsule carrying rocks and other materials from the moon landed in Inner Mongolia, marking a successful space mission and the first time in over forty years that humans have brought substances from the moon back to Earth . The Chang’e 5 capsule, named after the Chinese moon goddess, is China’s first sample-return attempt and the latest mission in the larger Chang’e program of robotic lunar exploration. In addition to being a great success for China and its space program led by the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), the successful mission has also fueled discussions about the role of space in US-China relations. While many see potential for great collaboration between the two countries in the next great frontier, others view China’s advances as a serious security concern and an impetus for the US to ramp up its own space program to meet China’s latest challenge.
American and Chinese space exploration: a brief overview
The US space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was established in 1958 during the Cold War to bring an American victory in the space race with the Soviet Union. However, the pace of US progress in space has since slowed. While there has been an increase in private sector spending on space exploration by companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, since the 1990s, NASA’s share of federal spending has dropped from 4.5% of the budget in 1966 to about 0.5% today.
Under the Trump administration, an effort has been made to elevate space as a priority in American national security. The Trump administration has revived the National Space Council, signed a Space Policy Directive, created a US Space Force as a new branch of the military, and introduced the America First National Space Strategy, which emphasizes strong American leadership in space technology.
China, by contrast, entered the world of space exploration decades later than the US, but has made impressive strides since the founding of CNSA in 1993. The nation sent humans into space in 2003 and orbited the moon in 2007; now, CNSA is pursuing lunar exploration, manned spaceflight, and its own space station, the China Space Station. It has been focusing heavily on space exploration technologies, developing a “monster rocket”—a more powerful type of rocket—and launching more unmanned rockets than any other country in 2018. Also in 2018, China became the first country to land an unmanned spacecraft on the far side of the moon, which serves as further evidence of its rapid catch-up to the space technologies of other countries.
Perspectives on US-China cooperation and conflict in space
The Trump administration and many other politicians in Washington see China’s space ambitions as an area of serious competition and another example of China’s campaign to expand its military influence. As a result, the White House announced in 2019 that NASA would return to the moon as soon as 2024, with Vice President Pence claiming that the US is engaged in another space race – but this time with China. Pence also characterized China’s landing on the far side of the moon as an attempt to gain the “lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation.”
And indeed, there is evidence to suggest both countries are edging closer to a full-blown space race. For example, the US and China are both eyeing the moon’s south pole, which is thought to contain water from ice as well as hydrogen and oxygen that can be converted into fuel for sending rockets to other destinations. Thus, the nation that controls the moon’s south pole controls a key stepping stone towards deeper space exploration. US officials have expressed concern that if China accesses the south pole first, the US will be unable to operate there, suggesting a zero-sum approach to space.
However, not all believe that China’s space ambitions automatically place it on a collision course with the US. Some see China’s pursuit of space exploration technology more as a part of its larger quest for national rejuvenation rather than a strategic militarization. China has chosen to pursue new and different avenues of space technology from other established space programs, potentially opening up opportunities for cooperation and technology sharing. Joan-Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College, highlights China’s pursuit of the far side of the moon and development of the world’s largest radio telescope as examples of this effort to diversify exploration and offer new data to its allies.
Working together may also disincentivize China from moves the US considers aggressive, such as creating an independent Chinese space station by 2025 – an initiative undertaken by Beijing following its denied admittance to the International Space Station in 2007 largely due to US security concerns. Proponents of US-Chinese cooperation say this was a mistake, and that the US and the world have much more to gain from China’s participation in the ISS, most poignantly by lowering the risk of bilateral conflict as well as bringing Chinese space technologies development into the fold of internationally shared norms and monitoring standards.
While the Trump administration has maintained a hawkish perspective on China’s ambitions in space, the upcoming Biden administration may be more inclined to take a different approach toward cooperation. Top advisors to the President-elect have emphasized the importance of cooperation with China on space exploration in order to avoid a costly space race. Pam Melroy, who is serving on Biden’s NASA transition team, described attempting to exclude China as a “failing strategy” and stated, “it’s very important that we engage.” Regardless, the transition team has otherwise yet to clarify Biden’s strategy towards China and space.
However, the potential road to collaboration remains muddled. Many officials, lawmakers, and politicians in the US believe that China’s record of technology theft and human rights abuses renders it an unreliable and untrustworthy partner in a new frontier, while there is also widespread concern that collaboration with China would result in a one-way flow of information, in which China gains information and technology from the US while the US gains little-to-nothing in return. Another obstacle is the US “Wolf Amendment” of 2011, which bans scientific cooperation between NASA and China on national security grounds.
Despite these roadblocks, it appears that the Biden administration may at the very least be open to the idea of collaborating with China in space. Perhaps the coming years will foster some level of cooperation between the two nations and usher in a new era of multilateral discovery in the new great frontier.