China is constrained by international space law
Legally, China cannot take over the moon because it violates current international space law. The space treatyadopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states that “space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim to sovereignty, through use or occupation, or by any other means” (Article II† lawyers have debated the exact meaning of “appropriation”, but in a literal interpretation the treaty states that no country can take possession of the moon and declare it an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives. If China were to attempt this, it risks international condemnation and a possible international retaliatory response.
Though 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 will not be the only visitor in the near future to the South Pole of the Moon. The US-led Artemis chords is a group of 20 countries which has plans to return humans to the moon by 2025, including establishing a research station on the lunar surface and a support space station in orbit called the gate with a planned launch in Nov 2024†
Even if no country can legally claim sovereignty over the moon, it is possible that China, or any other country, would attempt to gradually gain de facto control over strategically important areas through a strategy known as “cutting salami† This practice involves taking small, incremental steps to bring about a big change: individually, those steps don’t justify a strong response, but their cumulative effect leads to significant developments and greater control. China has recently used this strategy in the South and East China Sea† However, such a strategy takes time and can be tackled.
Driving the moon is hard
Covering an area of nearly 14.6 million square miles (39 million square kilometers)—or almost five times the size of Australia-any control over the moon would be temporary and local.
It is more likely that China could try to gain control of specific lunar regions of strategic value, such as lunar craters with higher concentrations of water ice† Ice on the Moon is important because it will provide water to people that does not have to be shipped from Earth. Ice can also serve as a vital source of oxygen and hydrogen, which can 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 regions would require significant financial investment and long-term efforts. And no country could do this without everyone noticing.
Does China have the resources and capabilities?
China is investing heavily in space. In 2021, it led in number of orbital launches with a total of 55 compared to the US’s 51. China is also in the top three in spacecraft use by 2021. China’s state-owned StarNet space company is planning a mega constellation from 12,992 satellitesand the country has almost finished building the Tiangong space station†
Going to the moon is expensive† The moon “taking over” would be much more the case. China’s space budget – a estimated US$13 billion in 2020—is only about half that of NASAs† Both the US and China have increased their space budgets in 2020, the US by 5.6% and China by 17.1% from the previous year. But even with increased spending, China doesn’t seem to be investing the money it needs to carry out the expensive, daring and uncertain mission of “taking over” the moon.
If China takes control of any part of the moon, it would be a risky, expensive and highly provocative move. China would risk further tarnishing its international image by violating international law and could lead to retaliation. All this for uncertain payouts that have yet to be determined.
Svetla Ben-Itzhak is an assistant professor of aerospace and international relations at Air University. R. Lincoln Hines is an assistant professor for the West Space Seminar at Air University.