China is limited by international space law
Legally, China cannot take control of the Moon as it is against existing international space law. The Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject of national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by use or occupation, or by any other means” (Article II). that no country can take possession of the Moon and declare it an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives.If China tried to do so, it would risk international condemnation and a possible retaliatory international response.
Although no country can claim ownership of the Moon, Article I of the Outer Space Treaty allows any state to explore and use outer space and celestial bodies. China won’t be the only visitor to the Moon’s south pole in the near future. The US-led Artemis Accords are a group of 20 countries that plan to return humans to the Moon by 2025, which will include establishing a lunar surface research station and an orbiting support space station called the Gateway with a plan to launch in November 2024.
Even though no country can legally claim sovereignty over the Moon, it is possible that China, or any other country, may attempt to gradually establish de facto control over strategically important areas through a strategy known as ” slicing salami”. This practice involves taking small, incremental steps to achieve a big change: Individually, these steps do not warrant a strong response, but their cumulative effect adds up to meaningful developments and increased control. China has recently used this strategy in the South and East China Seas. Yet such a strategy takes time and can be tackled.
Controlling the Moon is difficult
With an area of nearly 14.6 million square miles (39 million square kilometres) – nearly five times the area of Australia – any control of the Moon would be temporary and localized.
More plausibly, China could attempt to secure control of specific lunar areas that have strategic value, such as lunar craters with higher concentrations of water ice. The ice on the Moon is important because it will provide humans with water that would not need to be shipped from Earth. Ice can also serve as a vital source of oxygen and hydrogen, which could be used as rocket fuel. In short, water ice is essential to ensure the long-term sustainability and survivability of any mission to the Moon or beyond.
Securing and enforcing control of strategic lunar areas would require substantial financial investments and long-term efforts. And no country could do that without everyone noticing.
Does China have the resources and capabilities?
China is investing heavily in space. In 2021, it led the number of orbital launches with a total of 55 compared to the US’s 51. China is also in the top three for spacecraft deployment for 2021. Chinese space company StarNet plans a megaconstellation of 12,992 satellites, and the country has nearly completed construction of the Tiangong space station.
Going to the Moon is expensive; “taking control” of the Moon would be much more so. China’s space budget, estimated at US$13 billion in 2020, is only about half of NASA’s. The United States and China both increased their space budgets in 2020, the United States by 5.6% and China by 17.1% compared to the previous year. But even with increased spending, China doesn’t appear to be investing the money needed to carry out the costly, audacious and uncertain mission to “take control” of the Moon.
If China took control of part of the moon, it would be a risky, costly and extremely provocative action. China would risk further tarnishing its international image by breaking international law, and it could invite retaliation. All this for uncertain gains that remain to be determined.
Svetla Ben-Itzhak is assistant professor of space and international relations at Air University. R. Lincoln Hines is an assistant professor at Air University’s West Space Seminar.
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