On NASA Warning China Might Claim the Moon

Two space scholars explain why they think that is unlikely. 

China and the U.S. both have big plans for the Moon, but there are a number of reasons why no country could actually claim ownership of any land there. Illustration. (3dScultor/iStock via Getty Images)

By Svetla Ben-Itzhak and R. Lincoln Hines
The Conversation  

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently expressed concerns over China’s aims in space, and in particular, that China would, in some way, claim ownership over the Moon and stop other countries from exploring it.

In an interview with a German newspaper, Nelson cautioned, “We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying: ‘It’s ours now and you stay out.’” China immediately denounced the claims as a “lie”.

This spat between the administrator of NASA and Chinese government officials comes at a time when both nations are actively working on missions to the Moon – and China has not been shy about its lunar aspirations.

In 2019, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. That same year, China and Russia announced joint plans to reach the South Pole of the Moon by 2026. And some Chinese officials and government documents have expressed intentions to build a permanent, crewed International Lunar Research Station by 2027.

There is big difference between China – or any state for that matter – setting up a lunar base and actually “taking over” the Moon. As two scholars who study space security and China’s space program, we believe that neither China nor any other nation is likely to take over the Moon in the near future. It is not only illegal, it is also technologically daunting – the costs of such an endeavor would be extremely high, while the potential payoffs would be uncertain.

A large room with many seats and a large dais.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed into law by the United Nations, says that the Moon cannot be claimed by any nation. (Patrick Gruban/Flickr, CC BY-SA)

International Space Law

Legally, China cannot take over the Moon because it is against current international space law. The Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states that:

“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means” (Article II).

Legal scholars have debated the exact meaning of “appropriation”, but under a literal interpretation, the treaty indicates that no country can take possession of the Moon and declare it an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives. If China tried to do this, it would risk international condemnation and a potential international retaliatory response.

While 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 to the South Pole of the Moon in the near future.

The U.S.-led Artemis Accords is a group of 20 countries that has plans to return humans to the Moon by 2025, which will include the establishment of a research station on the lunar surface and a supporting space station in orbit called the Gateway with a planned launch in November 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 establish de facto control over strategically important areas through a strategy known as “salami slicing.” This practice involves taking small, incremental steps to achieve a big change: Individually, those steps do not warrant a strong response, but their cumulative effect adds up to significant developments and increased control.

China has recently been using this strategy in the South and East China seas. [Ed.: China says it is acting defensively.] Still, such a strategy takes time and can be addressed.

Controlling the Moon is Difficult

With a surface area of nearly 14.6 million square miles (39 million square kilometers) – or almost five times the area of Australia – any control of the Moon would be temporary and localized.

More plausibly, China could attempt to secure control of specific lunar areas that are strategically valuable, such as lunar craters with higher concentrations of water ice. Ice on the Moon is important because it will provide water to humans that wouldn’t need to be shipped from Earth. Ice can also serve as a vital source of oxygen and hydrogen, which could be used as rocket fuel. In short, water ice is essential for ensuring the long-term sustainability and survivability of any mission to the Moon or beyond.

Securing and enforcing control of strategic lunar areas would require substantial financial investments and long-term efforts. And no country could do this without everyone noticing.

Does China Have the Resources & Capabilities?

China is investing heavily in space. In 2021, it led in number of orbital launches with a total of 55 compared to the U.S.’s 51. China is also in the top three in spacecraft deployment for 2021. China’s state-owned StarNet space company is planning a mega-constellation of 12,992 satellites, and the country has nearly finished building the Tiangong space station.

Going to the Moon is expensive; “taking over” the Moon would be much more so. China’s space budget – an estimated $13 billion in 2020 – is only around half that of NASA’s. Both the U.S. and China increased their space budgets in 2020, the U.S. by 5.6 percent and China by 17.1 percent compared to the previous year. But even with the increased spending, China does not seem to be investing the money needed to carry out the expensive, daring and uncertain mission of “taking over” the Moon.

If China assumes control over some part of the moon, it would be a risky, expensive and extremely provocative action. China would risk further tarnishing its international image by breaking international law, and it may invite retaliation. All this for uncertain payoffs that remain to be determined.The Conversation

Svetla Ben-Itzhak is assistant professor of space and international relations, Air University and R. Lincoln Hines is assistant professor, West Space Seminar,  Air University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News. 

22 comments for “On NASA Warning China Might Claim the Moon

  1. Alan Ross
    July 16, 2022 at 18:54

    Is it that NATO is looking for more new members or places to put nuclear-armed missiles? Then it would be NATOPM – North-Atlantic, Pacific, Moon Organization.

  2. Altruist
    July 15, 2022 at 13:10

    Owning the moon is ridiculous. I just can hear the militarists and neocons saying “who lost the moon?”
    This is imperialism and capitalism run amok. Reminds me of a book by Jules Verne which I loved as a child (“Around the Sun and Off on a Comet” or “Hector Servadac”) where the antagonist, an astronomer, claimed to be the owner of a comet by virtue of having discovered it.

    • WontGetFooledAgain
      July 16, 2022 at 08:38

      “Owning the moon is ridiculous.”

      Ideologically it is not deemed ridiculous by some, including by the dead Mr. Leo Strauss and his not yet dead disciples, since “ownership” is a popular framing in such melees, often mistakenly projected onto others through immersion in “exceptionalist binaries.”

      “Credit” should be apportioned to the continuance of ridiculousness of opponents, since such vectors can be used by others to increase levels of complicity of opponents in their own transcendence – for example “The Sanctions” beliefs in regard to those who believe that “Sanctions” have been implemented by them against The Russian Federation.

  3. David Duret
    July 15, 2022 at 11:49

    Oh, I guess that’s why the fossil fuels energy sector is creating wars to enable quadruple down production. To melt the ice sheets and corner the rocket fuels market. As far as thin slices of Salami on the moon. – very possible – the stuff travels well in a cooler of melted ice. But for making rocket fuels from ice on the moon: I recommend using the whole Salami sausage log on the moon to smash the ice into a fine powder, then (turn up the oxygen in your environment) quick before the ice melts put the powder in your mouth and blow it across an open flame (like we did as children with instant hot cocoa powder) to create the illusion of a fire breathing dragon. Then abandon the “intentional incompetence so that no sensible change can happen ” shtik.

    • David Duret
      July 16, 2022 at 03:12

      …corner the rocket fuels (produced from ice) markets.

  4. July 15, 2022 at 11:08

    While reading this, I had a thought perhaps worthy of minor publication such as this comment. It is that the history of legal rulings in water-poor areas might be useful when evaluating use-of-space rights in the future. The legal system of water rights in dry areas in the U.S. were built on the right of prior appropriation to priority and quantity in receiving water. It’s a method of administering water rights that has proved workable in western states, where the method is amenable to alteration by case law and legislation that later superimposed a layer of public interest regulation of water resources. It’s basically first come, first served, but subject to restrictive conditions that can be superimposed later.

  5. forceOfHabit
    July 15, 2022 at 10:29

    The space race is just one more arena where the dysfunctional US oligopoly has lost any advantage it once enjoyed. China would undoubtedly be more worried about competition for possession/exploitation of the moon coming from Elon Musk than from the US government.

  6. joeSixPack
    July 15, 2022 at 08:59

    “On NASA Warning United States Might Claim the Moon”

    There fixed the title for you. This article is an exercise in projection and a way to gin up support for another space race. Without a boogey man the American people would have no appetite to spend vast sums of money on an endeavor that enriches no one but the top 1%. Without the Soviet Union launching Sputnik into space, Eisenhower would not have established NASA and Kennedy would not have coerced American into going to the moon. The fear of sleeping “by the light of a Communist moon”, drove the space program.

    Need I remind you, the Unites States planted an American flag on the moon.

    • Dennis Nilsson
      July 15, 2022 at 16:29

      Yes, if not for the space race, we wouldn’t have technologies like GPS, weather satellite, research satellite, sat phone, sat internet phone, sat tv, and many other else. So I thank both countries including other countries that contributed to it.

      A historical documentary, Space Race

      “Space Race tells the story of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union’s most powerful rocket design and thus to control the world during the Cold War. Central to the competition between two driven, but also reckless scientists: the charismatic ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun on the American side, and the mysterious leader of the Soviets that they only knew as ‘The Chief Designer’.”

    • Brian Bixby
      July 16, 2022 at 18:21

      When the Apollo 11 astronauts were sent on their world tour after returning from the moon Buzz Aldrin said that they were surprised to hear people all over the world saying, “We did it!” Not “you” but “we”, as though it were all of humanity that had gone to the moon. The live broadcast of Armstrong stepping off the Eagle still holds the record for the largest percentage of televisions watching a single program simultaneously. (Any World Cup will have far more viewers today, but there weren’t nearly so many televisions then and pretty much everyone tuned in that could.) It was even carried almost-live on the few television stations in the USSR and China.

      If done right it could be one of the great unifying events in world history. Unfortunately it will probably be run by herds of technophobic lawyers turn politicians.

  7. Yu Ma
    July 14, 2022 at 22:35

    Always cracks me up when someone claims that a possession of a country/land/island/planet is illegal. Laws mean nothing, they are just a bunch of words on paper designed to imbue some sort of divine legitimacy to a hostile takeover by a gunpoint, nothing but a marketing ploy. When powers to be want something, they take it, then invent some laws justifying it, not necessarily in that order. It has always been like that. In any historical instances that anything taken by force was given back under “legal” pressure it only happened because it was not financially/economically/politically worth keeping it.
    I keep telling people that a parking ticket given by a local council must be paid under the force of gun, they laugh at me, saying it is preposterous. So, you refuse to pay your ticket. You get a reminder to pay it + extra costs for late payment processing. You refuse. You get court summons. You don’t go to court. You get another court summons. You don’t go. They come with police to arrest you. You can fight that with a point of a gun, you will lose. You don’t fight it, you end up in court. You still refuse to pay (might even have todo some community service or minor jail time by now) they have a right (right given to themselves, enforcible by a point of a gun) to sell your possessions, including your house, to pay off all the fines and costs. This process might take years, but it will happen.
    Only way this will not happen is if you own nothing they consider worth taking.
    It is no different on nation scale. International laws mean nothing if they can not be enforced. USA is not a signatory of any international treaties on war crime prosecutions, torture regulations, biological and chemical weapon treaties etc. No one can stick a gun to their head and say “Obey or else”. If Chinese decide to take the moon, they will take it.

    • Altruist
      July 15, 2022 at 13:31

      Very good analysis.

      Reminds me of the great law professor at Columbia, the late Hans Smit, who liked to say that the source of all law is “physical power” (while pointing out that he was the only former Olympic athlete teaching at a major US law school).

  8. Andrew Nichols
    July 14, 2022 at 19:33

    1. Can American officials get more risible? 2. When will the Westetn Mainly White Minority World get over their collective hypnosis and see the dangerous unhinged Washington empire for what it is and isolate themselves from it befire it starts WW3?

  9. Jeff Harrison
    July 14, 2022 at 17:14

    I’d be more worried about the US doing that than China.

    • WillD
      July 15, 2022 at 21:57

      Me too. Any time the US issues a warning or makes an accusation against another country, it means that it is doing the same thing or intends to do it.

      Try it, it’s a pretty reliable indicator of the actual reality. Just reverse the statement to point at the US instead.

  10. Consortiumnews.com
    July 14, 2022 at 16:22

    The preposterous NASA claim that China wants to “own” the moon can only be seen as part of an ongoing U.S. propaganda campaign to demonize Beijing as an “imperial” and “expansionist” power, falsely projecting onto it what the United States is.

    • Dfnslblty
      July 14, 2022 at 17:28

      Paranoia is air to pentagon/mic.
      Look at the source of their writing.
      Diversion from immoral, illegal arming of Ukraine.

      Unfortunately usa does not active & qualified diplomats to explain treaties to MIC and citizens.

    • zhenry
      July 14, 2022 at 21:40

      Exactly. Using a word like projection takes away from the sinister implication (my opinion) of accusing others of what the US itself does.
      It does it all the time and it is expanded all over the media world wide essentially controlled by the CIA. Its sickening. Its creating a toxic world.
      You get it with descriptions especially of a Putin and Russia and China; it assumes other countries have the same motivation of world hegemony as the US, as its corporations, as the WEF (also it seems controlled by the US) only a small percentage of the US population involved, and if you are partially interested in current affairs it is obvious who these people are. Like in Ukraine the N…. are 10-12% of the population yet completely control what Ukraine does – of course in conjunction with the controlling interest group in the USA – who are not called N….
      Studies of competition amongst groups of people reveal a cut off point for the beneficial aspect, after that competition is destructive. So you take away competition from a group you have a big hole? No. Fill it with cooperation.
      This group in the US, as we all know, is addicted to competition, money, power and to a degree violence. If we are to evolve our humanity this group must be dealt with.
      I heard a talk today by Robert Barnes he apparently believes the globalists will not be able to implement their policies. I hope he is right.

    • Eddie S
      July 14, 2022 at 23:24

      CN – I entirely agree! This sounds like one of those crazy conjectural pronouncements I expect to hear from US right-wing militarists in the Pentagon /FOX ’News’/the recently mentioned John Bolton/ Alex Jones /etc, NOT from a non-political government agency like NASA. I was saddened to see NASA tarnish its scientific reputation by getting involved in pandering politics. There’s little historical context mentioned as, for instance, an examination of how the similar Antarctic treaty has worked-out (I personally have never heard of any problems with any of the US’ official enemies not adhering to the treaty).

      • Dennis Nilsson
        July 15, 2022 at 16:37

        NASA has always been about politics. Without the Soviet Union launching Sputnik into space, Eisenhower would not have established NASA and Kennedy would not have inspired/coerced American into going to the moon.

        Beating China in a race to the moral bottom would not constitute a victory.

    • Brian Bixby
      July 16, 2022 at 18:25

      Keep in mind that the director of NASA is a political appointee, not necessarily a techie of any sort. They’ll blurt out whatever they’re told to, while the staff that does the actual work does its best to ignore them.

  11. Joe Wallace
    July 14, 2022 at 15:40

    Thank God control of the moon has come up. We were running out of things to fight over.

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