The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation publicly announced a memorandum of understanding signed on March 9, 2021 that would lead to a lunar research station on the Moon by 2030. The announcement received much fanfare in the media and raised concerns about the PRC’s lunar efforts. The International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which the proposed station will be called, is designated to be an un-crewed base that will be located at the lunar south pole and will initially consist of a robotic platform that will prospectively be expanded to accommodate humans. The PRC and Russian Federation’s announcement stressed the international and cooperative nature of the ILRS and concern, especially in the context of Sino-Russian cooperation. More recently, the PRC announced its vision for not only reaching Mars with human beings but establishing a sustainable presence over the next several decades at a space conference hosted by the Russian Federation. The plan outlined by the PRC calls for the first crewed mission in 2033, with further launches to follow in 2035, 2037, 2041, and 2043.
Both these announcements are part of the current great power competition between the U.S. and the PRC and makes use of the Three Warfares to counter U.S. influence in outer space and terrestrial domains. The Three Warfares is a tool of unrestricted warfare created by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2003 and approved by the Central Military Commission. The Department of Defense defines the Three Warfares as utilizing media, psychological tactics and lawfare to achieve geopolitical ends. The ILRS and Mars initiatives in particular employ the Three Warfares with two goals in mind: to pushback against U.S. space policy advances, specifically with the Artemis Accords and further the PRC’s ambitions to mold the international legal archetype for outer space into its worldview.
The ILRS and Mars initiatives provide the PRC with positive optics and effective propaganda channeled through state and Western media. This is borne out in responses and predictions regarding the ILRS and Mars announcement from Western media outlets as well as state media organs in the PRC and Russian Federation, which bolster the PRC’s narrative of peaceful uses of outer space and cooperation while implicitly and explicitly chastising the U.S. for its policy towards the PRC and cooperation in outer space.
The psychological facet of the ILRS and Mars announcement is two-fold. First, it presents optics that the PRC in conjunction with its other outer space successes is surging ahead of the U.S. in outer space activities and therefore the de facto pacesetter for the direction of outer space activities and governance. This gives the PRC leverage and credibility in international bodies discussing outer space security matters. The second and most interesting psychological aspect of ILRS in particular is that it builds upon the perceived united front between Beijing and Moscow. The Sino-Russian pretense of cooperation has significant impact as it raises an alarm of potential threat to the interests of the U.S. and its allies not only in terrestrial domains but outer space as well and also creates the semblance of both states subordinating their national interests for the common good. This impression is highly effective towards policymakers and academia in the U.S. as well as the international stage and detracts from efforts outside international bodies, including the Artemis Accords.
The legal aspect of the Three Warfares is found in the PRC’s criticism of the Artemis Accords and proposals for alternative legal structures on the Moon and possible sovereign claims on both the Moon and Mars. Both the PRC and the Russian Federation have criticized the Artemis Accords as a U.S.-centric approach to outer space governance, and many states, including the Germany, France and India have hesitated becoming signatories. The PRC and the Russian Federation are leveraging this hesitancy to bring these states and others into cooperative agreements, which would challenge future legal structures endorsed and based on the Artemis Accords. Additionally, while posturing cooperative legal structures, the PRC’s prominent display of its national flag on both the Moon and Mars indicates the PRC is likely taking a legal approach echoing the nine-dash line area of the South China Sea where it is using customary international law to create sovereign claims to rewrite current international law.
These announcements are not coincidence and are a positive sign that U.S. space policy initiatives, including the Artemis Accords, are proving effective at positioning the U.S. as a global leader in space law and policy. This concerns both the PRC and the Russian Federation and the timing of the ILRS and Mars announcements is calculated to take advantage of uncertainty in the future direction of U.S. space policy and undermine the Artemis Accords. In particular, the PRC seeks to elicit the Biden Administration to abandon the current course of U.S. space policy and return the focus to the UN and multilateral measures where the PRC and the Russian Federation possess a home field advantage in soft power.
The PRC’s efforts in outer space are something to watch and should be analyzed in the context of the Three Warfares and other gray zone operations. Policymakers should analyze these efforts and resist making reactive decisions as the PRC may intend these announcements as a distraction for larger geopolitical and geo-legal goals in the context of the great power competition. Alarm and concern over PRC/Russian Federation cooperation should be tempered with real politik as both states have interests in putting up this front to counter and frustrate U.S. international efforts but also have geopolitical interests and pasts rooted in mistrust while putting on the face of solidarity.
Michael J. Listner is an attorney and the founder and principal of Space Law and Policy Solutions, which is a think-tank/consultation firm that advises on matters of national security, outer space security, space law and space policy. Michael is also the author and editor of the subscription space law and policy briefing letter, The Précis.