Since 2019, China is considered the main rival of the USA in the development of the moon. In 2022 this confrontation intensified, against the backdrop of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The parties are exchanging sharp statements about each other’s plans, but most experts are confident that this will not lead to a real military confrontation.
China’s lunar ambitions
Ten years ago, China’s lunar ambitions were a mere fantasy. However, in 2019, China became the first country in the world to land a spacecraft on the far side of our natural satellite. The Chang’e-4 landing stage not only successfully reached the surface, but also launched the Yutu-2 rover onto it.
Technically, this is not a really great achievement, since these devices do not demonstrate practically any technical innovations. The rover found glass balls and sticky soil on the surface, but this doesn’t look like a sensational discovery. However, for US space specialists, this mission had great symbolic significance. Someone did something on the moon for the first time, and it wasn’t them.
So now we can already say that the confrontation in space will concern not only satellites in Earth orbits and ways to disable them. A base on our nearest celestial neighbor and the orbital infrastructure necessary for its operation can also become a subject of competition.
Chinese-Russian lunar base
Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine only exacerbated this confrontation. And the fact is not only that the USA is providing assistance to Kyiv in this conflict. Beijing and Moscow, facing increasing isolation of the latter from the rest of the world, are thinking of joint space missions. And the most important of them is the program of a manned flight to the moon.
The agreement was signed in 2019. It involves the joint operation of the Russian Luna-26 satellite in orbit around the Moon and the Chinese Chang’e-7 lander. The latter should reach the surface of our satellite near its pole in 2026.
This latter news greatly alarmed the USA: because Chang’e-7 is actually a “robotic laboratory” which will look for water ice there. And water will enable China to create a base on the moon with a permanent crew. Plans to create such a station as early as in 2027 are mentioned in some published official documents of the PRC.
Ukraine, in turn, is a participant in the Artemis Accords project. In essence, this international treaty is a part of the US plan to explore the moon. And it provides an alternative to the Russian-Chinese program.
The role of Europeans in the conflict
It is interesting that the Chinese and Russians made a lot of effort to involve European countries in their lunar plans. Already in 2023 Chinese are planning to launch their next device to the moon — Chang’e-6 — that will bring some lunar probes to the Earth. It will also have some French appliances on board.
As for the Luna-26 probe, from the very beginning it was planned as part of a mission to explore lunar resources. Its second component was to be Luna-27 landing module with a robotic drill onboard provided by the European Space Agency (ESA).
However, the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine affected these plans. ESA refused to cooperate with the aggressor in all projects, including Luna-27. Russia itself has stated that this mission is not their priority as for now.
A free economic zone on the moon
In 2019, the first major lunar scandal involving the PRC broke out. An official of the China Aviation Supplies Import and Export Group Corporation (CASC) said that a free economic zone will be established between the Earth and the Moon by 2050. This news was picked up by the newspapers, which immediately connected it with the exclusive economic zone.
CASC specialists presented some details that will allow their country to implement this project within the specified time frame. According to them, fundamental works should be completed in the 2030s, key technologies should be obtained in the 2040s, and then it will be the time for the actual implementation of the plan. Experts did not manage to reach a clear opinion on whether this was an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to gently inform the world about its ambitions, or whether individual officials within the People’s Republic of China were thus trying to interest the country’s leadership in lunar missions.
China is creating a lunar satellite group
For two years, China has been pursuing its many space plans and finally mentioned the moon. In April 2022, Vice Chairman of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) Wu Yanhua announced plans to launch an entire constellation of satellites into a selenocentric orbit to provide information support for future lunar missions.
It is planned that these satellites will be launched already in 2023-2024. Now China limited itself only to the repeater located at the Lagrangian point L₂. Yutu-2 rover is controlled with it. But the launch of an entire group could potentially make China the leader in the development of the Moon.
The American military and the Chinese threat
Of course, all this did not go unnoticed by the United States. In the same April of 2022, the US Space Force issued a statement that it is ready to perform its functions of securing civilian facilities on the Moon. At the same time, they referred to the 1967 agreement, which expressly prohibits the placement of military facilities on our heavenly neighbor.
This agreement is signed by all states that can potentially participate in the new lunar race. China and Russia also signed it, and so far they have not expressed plans to place something military on the moon. However, the US military don’t believe this and point to a shortcut in the agreement that allows armed civilian guards to be placed on space objects.
China and the United States: exchanging accusations
A new scandal erupted at the beginning of July. The head of NASA, Bill Nelson, in an interview with the newspaper Bild, accused the CNSA of preparing to turn their lunar base into a military one. According to him, China can complete its station in 2035 and then use it to attempt capturing of our natural satellite.
Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, responded to Nelson’s accusations. He denied the accusations of the head of NASA and said that his country has always sought to create a peaceful community in space. And this is not the first time that the USA has tried to lie about the Chinese space program.
Expert opinion: China will not be able to capture the moon
These disputes have attracted the attention of space exploration experts. In particular, an article authored by Svetla Ben-Yitzhak and Lincoln Hines from the US Air Force University appeared at the end of July. They pointed to the fact that building a lunar station does not mean “capturing the Moon” at all.
They recalled that the first article of the already mentioned agreement on the moon of 1967 expressly prohibits any country from appropriating our natural satellite, regardless of the way in which it can be done. This document also declares the right to freely use the Moon for each nation.
After all, the Chinese will not be there alone. Already in 2025, a crew launched by the states that are part of the “Artemis Agreement” is planned to land on the same pole of the Moon. And even earlier, in 2024, the LOP-Gateway station is to be launched into lunar orbit.
Of course, China may try to establish de facto control over the surface of the Moon without declaring it legally. It is now applying this strategy to certain islands in the South China Sea. But this process is slow and requires significant costs.
Money and resources
After all, establishing military control over the entire surface of the Moon is extremely difficult. It is five times the area of Australia. So this is exactly the case when capturing huge territories will bring nothing but problems.
But China may not need to capture the entire moon. The most valuable resource on it today is water ice. And its deposits are quite limited. Therefore, the PRC can apply the above strategy only to them.
In the end, it all comes down to funds and the ability to turn them into space technology. In 2021, China surpassed the US in the number of launches. Meanwhile, the budget of their space program is only half of the funds allocated for the needs of NASA. And a flight to the moon is not cheap.
Both nations are currently increasing their space budgets, but China is doing so faster. So, it can be stated that the new lunar race has started.