China-Russia Space Alliance Stumbles in Bid to Surpass US – Bloomberg


China-Russia Space Alliance Stumbles in Bid to Surpass US

  • Beijing is seeking new partners in space to counter Washington
  • War further hurt Russian program that was already struggling



China-Russia Space Alliance Stumbles in Bid to Surpass US

Bloomberg News

Mon, February 27, 2023 at 1:43 PM GMT+8·7 min read

(Bloomberg) — China’s state-run media frequently touts the country’s major achievements and grand ambitions in outer space, including its space station and planned research outpost on the moon.

But there’s one thing it tends not to mention: Russia, its closest partner in space.

When Beijing and Moscow announced plans in 2021 for a joint lunar project, it looked like a powerful alliance, matching China’s technological prowess with deep Russian experience in space, dating back to the original moon race. Yet even before Russia’s war in Ukraine, there were doubts about what Moscow could offer Beijing.

“Russia is still one of the biggest players in space, but if you look at the trajectory of that program, it’s really been declining in terms of budget, personnel and capabilities,” said Mariel Borowitz, a space policy expert and associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, China has downplayed talk of a Beijing-Moscow space axis, even while its diplomats say relations between the two nations are solid. Chinese representatives at September’s International Astronautical Congress in Paris didn’t talk about Russia when discussing the lunar project, and Russia is often left out of Chinese media reports about Beijing’s space program.

In the competition to return people to the moon, NASA got a head start in November with the launch of an uncrewed capsule into lunar orbit. That was the first mission in a US program to land astronauts on the lunar surface by as early as 2025, a timeline that many see as ambitious.

China hasn’t disclosed a timetable for its plans to send people to the moon. “In the foreseeable future, we will send the Chinese to step on the moon,” Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the China Manned Space Program, said in a Feb. 25 interview with state media, without giving a more detailed timeline.

This Is the Space Station China is Building to Challenge the US

China also is trying to catch up in deploying satellites to orbit Earth.

For now, however, China has sought to use its space program as a soft-power tool to compete with the US, one reason Beijing and Moscow’s planned International Lunar Research Station — touted as promoting “humanity’s exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes” — was opened to other countries.

But while nearly two dozen countries have signed up for the Artemis Accords, a US-led plan to set the rules for activities in space — including lunar stations — no country has joined China and Russia for the ILRS.

The divide is widely seen by space experts as signaling a disagreement over who will set the rules and standards for future exploration. Among the nations joining the Artemis Accords in recent months are Nigeria and Rwanda — the first African countries to do so. Their move is a political blow to China’s efforts to sew up diplomatic support from African countries.


Another setback came in January, when the head of the European Space Agency said the 22-member group has no plans for its astronauts to travel to China’s recently completed space station, backing away from an agreement signed in 2015. Cooperation continues, however, on a satellite to study solar winds.

“There’s this competing narrative between China and the US, and at the moment the US has a lot more willing partners than China has,” said Mark Hilborne, a lecturer in the Defence Studies department of King’s College London.

China has had some success courting other would-be partners. During a trip to Saudi Arabia in December, President Xi Jinping welcomed having astronauts from the kingdom and other Gulf nations travel to China’s space station. The space agencies of China and the United Arab Emirates will work on joint projects, including a lunar rover, the two sides announced in September.

In addition, a company based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in January signed a preliminary agreement with Djibouti to build a spaceport in the East African country that will have seven satellite launch pads and three rocket testing pads.

–With assistance from Robert Fenner.


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