The Guardian • Issue #2063

Space War?

USA, China, and the geopolitics of mining the Moon

Space craft.

Photo: – public domain.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) between the United States and the Soviet Union sought all nations to avoid any future “land grab” leading to the possibility of a war in Space. Under Article 2 of the OST, no country can claim sovereignty over parts of space or any celestial body. A corollary to this is that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, covered by Article 3 of the OST, grants individuals the fundamental right to own property. While the state cannot appropriate any part of the Moon, this does not forbid corporations from owning land, setting up bases, or performing mining activities. The Moon Treaty of 1979 would have clarified this situation, but the US, China, and Russia failed to ratify the agreement.

On 20th July 1969, Buzz Aldrin planted the US flag on the Moon. For many this constituted a territorial claim making the Moon an American colony. The US countered that the flag raising was honouring US taxpayers and the engineers of the US Space Agency, NASA, who made the Apollo 11 Mission possible. Why then did the US not fly a United Nations flag? Sixty per cent of the components used in the spacecraft and Moon lander came from Europe and Japan, and the tracking station in Australia made it possible for the world to witness the historic event on tv. Following the third Moon mission in 1972 the US did not return to the Moon. It had won “the Space Race.”

The Space Race began on 4th October 1957 when the Soviet Union sent the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit around the Earth. The USSR followed with other achievements far in advance of the US by sending the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961 and the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, two years later. On 3rd July 1969 the Soviet N-1 launch exploded on take-off, allowing the US to land the first humans on the Moon.

The US believed that whoever made the first Moon landing would be able to fire nuclear weapons from the Moon to anywhere on Earth. To get around nuclear non-proliferation treaties with the USSR, the US considered setting off nuclear explosions on the Moon. It also planned to send nuclear powered spacecraft to Mars, using the detonation of 127 nuclear war heads as propulsion. By the 1970s such plans were dropped, as US intercontinental missiles were able to hit anywhere in the USSR and China.

Today there is another space race: the US versus China and Russia. China plans to send humans to the Moon by 2030, to be followed by space exploration and mining bases. This has raised concerns with US lawmakers and space policy analysts, who believe the Moon Space Race can only end in conflict. “Many terrestrial military doctrines are not applicable in space, or at least not as applicable. If you get beyond 50 miles, or at least 62 miles, suddenly different rules apply. We need to start being aware of that,” says Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. The head of US Space Command, General James Dickinson, told the “Sea Air Space conference” in August 2021: “If similar actions have been taken in other domains, they’d likely be considered provocative, aggressive, or maybe even irresponsible. And in response, the US government would take corresponding actions using all levers of national power, a demarche, or a sanction or something to indicate we won’t tolerate that type of behaviour, but we’re not quite there yet in space policy.”

The OST banned nuclear weapons, military manoeuvres, and military installations in space. The agreement requires all countries to take “appropriate international consultations” before making any moves that would “cause potentially harmful interference” with other space programs. James Lake, senior associate at Canyon Consulting, writes in Space Force Journal, “The question remains: is that text sufficient?”

In 2019 China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft landed on the far side of the Moon. Two years later the US Space Force and US Space Command was set up to protect US assets up to 437,700 kilometres away from Earth, called “cislunar space.” The Moon is 363,300 km away making the Command in charge of protecting the Moon for US interests. Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Cislunar Highway Patrol System monitors all space activity. On the geopolitical situation of the new Space Race, US President Joe Biden said in 2022, “There’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it.”

This lack of cooperation on space exploration between the US and China only increases the danger of growing conflict in the race to extract the huge mineral wealth on the Moon. “Our concern in the West is more about who sets the rules of the road, particularly access to resources,” said Malcolm Davis, researcher in space policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra. He warned that China will claim the resources of the Moon as they did in the South China Sea.

On 18th April 2019 Vice President Kamala Harris said in her speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base, “The United States is committed to lead the way and to lead by example.” The US set up the Artemis Accords, a non-legally binding multilateral arrangement between the US and other governments to govern all future activity on the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt. On 13th October 2020 the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and Japan signed the agreement and as of 3rd May 2023, there are 24 signatories. China warns that Artemis is a “space-based NATO.”(see Guardian #2059 “Peace Notes ‘Whose Artemis?’ ”)

According to Mining.Com (17th May 2022) NASA aims to send astronauts to the Moon by 2025, to build a base to mine helium-3, an isotope used as an alternative to uranium for nuclear power plants. According to Popular Mechanics the isotope is worth US$1.4 million per kilo. The Moon’s surface also contains large deposits of minerals worth 35 quintillion dollars. The Moon also has large volumes of water, necessary for human life and mining activities.

According to the CSIRO (22nd February 2021) Australia will bring its expertise in geoscience to extra-terrestrial mining. Dave Williams, executive director of CSIRO’s Digital, National, Facilities and Collections, argues that we are a world leader in remote mining, skills useful for US corporations carrying out Lunar mining. “There are massive logistical issues around humans going to the moon, such as ensuring adequate supply of water, food, radiation-proof shelter, medical support, and setting up sustainable life systems.”

In January 2023 the China Daily criticised NASA’s safety zones as a way for the US government and companies to reserve areas of the Moon, which violates international law. In 2021 China complained to the UN that the two satellites launched by Musk’s SpaceX came dangerously close to its space station. Beijing fears that such interruptions to its space programmes will only grow in the future. In February 2022 President Putin visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing to jointly promote the International Lunar Research Station, open to all other countries, as an alternative to the Artemis Agreement. “The world is no longer interested in its divisive, hegemonic schemes.”

China has good reason to be suspicious. US legislation passed in 2011 blocked China from taking part in the International Space Station, forcing China to build its own. Lincoln Hines, assistant professor at the US Air War College, doubts, “whether you can have a coherent system of rules in outer space when you have two different visions of order and there isn’t any cooperation.”

China is swiftly catching up with US scientifically, being the first country to send a probe to the far side of the Moon in 2019, and the second nation to land a rover on Mars. Xi writes in the introduction to the white paper, China’s Space Program: A 2021 Perspective, “To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream.” It was China’s fifth white paper on space activities. Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, says China wants to be the leader. “China feels that it’s China’s time” to be the NASA of the future. Such impinging on US territorial and hegemonic claims may lead to clashes and the threat of war.

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