China: Noteworthy Protagonist in the Politics beyond the Earth

The past few weeks have been eventful for the Chinese Space Program. First, part of China’s Long March 5B rocket made its way back to earth amidst uncertainty as to where it would fall, sparking not only worries about the location of its landing—which turned to be west of the Maldives archipelago—but also a debate about responsibility in no man’s (no) land: space. NASA did not remain silent on the issue and China addressed the backlash dubbing it part of a campaign of the West against them, criticizing the double-standard to which China is held. But then on May 14, by landing its Zhurong rover on Mars, China became the second country to land a rover on the red planet.


The Program is led by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and, especially in the last decade, has seen its capabilities spike. China has become an important player in the space realm, which has found itself increasingly ventured to by different countries and private companies, with the likes of Space X and even Boeing.


Among its other recent milestones, China has made the first landing ever on the dark side of the moon and is currently building its third space station, Tiangong - to become an alternative to the International Space Station (ISS), jointly built by the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and a number of European nations.


Whether there is a space race underway between China and the US is yet to be seen. China is harnessing the achievements domestically as shown by the highly symbolic display of a lunar sample collected from the Chang’e 5 mission. Prospects of future cooperation between the two countries’ space programs should not be dismissed although a ban put in place by the American Congress in 2011 and implemented by NASA excludes the government of China and organisations affiliated to it from joint activities with the latter—at least for now. Moreover, the importance of space in the global balance of power must not be underestimated and military activities in space are part of a growing tendency, which crucially is not forbidden under international law.


Despite such omissions, advances into space are regulated under the Outer Space Treaty, though countries also have recourse to their own domestic regulations regarding the matter. The Treaty bans the use of nuclear weapons in space, reserves the moon and other astronomical bodies for peaceful purposes only, and establishes the right to free exploration of space by all nations, though no nation may claim sovereignty in outer space or of any celestial body.


With China’s space program burgeoning, and with more missions ahead, risky events like those witnessed in the first days of May cannot be ruled out. Space debris management is also a pressing issue, with hundreds of non-functioning man-made objects and the risk of damage to functioning satellites, and the GPS and weather information they provide. Rocket re-entry is also not regulated yet, an aspect which can be dealt with beforehand and that played a key role with the Long March 5B rocket. In such case, the rocket used for the lift left that stage in a low orbit, causing it to plunge out of control back to Earth. This is a scenario that the international space community tries to avoid by either leaving those on a “graveyard” orbit or conducting controlled re-entries. Whether it is accidental or out of disregard for safety on Earth, it is an important debate for the future given advances underway which will enable further developments—inevitably entailing greater risks, and the amount and variety of players.