Could a 500-year-old treaty hold the key to peace in space?
by Daniel Duchaine
|Great power competition in space today is an extension of great power competition on Earth.|
Underpinning this competition are the benefits and potential future benefits to controlling and utilizing the space domain. The space industry is becoming one of the largest industries in the world, valued by the Space Foundation at $469 billion in 2022. Beyond the traditional space economy there are new vast untapped resources for great powers to exploit, like space-based solar power and asteroid mining.
While the United States continues to maintain the world’s most advanced space capabilities, its dominance is increasingly under threat. China landed rovers on the Moon and China operates its own space station, India and Japan plan to land rovers on the Moon, and Japan landed a probe on an asteroid, and all of the great powers have, or are developing, human spaceflight capabilities.
Space is a Wild West when it comes to laws and regulations. The great powers signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967. This treaty prohibits nuclear weapons in space, limits the use of celestial bodies to peaceful purposes, precludes sovereignty over outer space, and forbids establishing military bases, weapons testing, and military maneuvers on celestial bodies. But lurking in the background is the risk that total war in space, including significant use of orbital kinetic weapons, would generate space debris, potentially jeopardizing humanities future use of space.
The leader in space collaboration and exploration. The US has laid down a blueprint for the utilization of space resources in a collaborative manner, as outlined in the Artemis Accords. Furthermore, the Trump Administration’s National Space Policy highlights the country’s ambitious goal to establish a permanent presence in space. A significant factor distinguishing the US from other spacefaring nations is the strong presence of private stakeholders in its space industry, with companies like SpaceX leading the charge in commercialization.
Ambitious aims with a long-term vision. China has set its sights on grand objectives for its space program: the development of space-based solar power, ambitious plans for lunar and asteroid mining, and a target to establish a permanent presence on the Moon by 2049. Intrinsically linked to its military space program, the country’s space ambitions are increasingly involving the private sector. The pursuit of space excellence forms an integral part of the “Chinese Dream”, embodying the nation’s quest for rejuvenation and global prominence.
A legacy of space supremacy. Russia operates a significant satellite network, third by number of satellites behind the United States and China. Its space agency, Roscosmos, while grappling with budgetary constraints, remains a formidable player in space exploration and technology. Russia’s robust human spaceflight program continues to be a symbol of national prestige, and its Soyuz spacecraft has long been the workhorse for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. Since the war in Ukraine, Russia lost its partnerships with the West. Its space strategy is evolving in response to rising competitors and shifting geopolitical realities, with increasing emphasis on militarization and independent space capabilities. Russia has taken similar steps to bolster its kinetic counterspace capabilities and modernize for information warfare and cyber conflict in space, including the creation of the Aerospace Forces in 2015.
A great power that’s not a state. The European Space Agency (ESA) may operate fewer satellites than Japan, yet when combined, EU countries collectively control 226 satellites. This puts the EU above Russia but below China in satellite operations. The potency of the European influence in space hinges less on sheer capabilities or resources but rather on the unity and cooperation among its member states. Europe saw its role evolve with the establishment of the Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space in 2018, signifying the EU’s growing ambitions in the rekindled space race.
|Whether space exploration will contribute to stability or instability among great powers depends upon which resources are seen as scarce or abundant.|
The key US ally. While Japan may not operate as many satellites as the US, China, or Russia, its space program is nonetheless expanding and militarizing, spurred by the actions of China and North Korea. Today, Japan’s space program is a key ally to the US, providing support on military, economic, and scientific fronts. This cooperation extends from sharing Earth observation data to the operation of four domestically produced navigation satellites that augment US capabilities. As a signatory and participant of the Artemis Accords, Japan continues to play a significant role in global space exploration.
The new great power. Although India may be considered the weakest among the great powers, its aspirations in space exploration are anything but. India seeks to achieve traditional goals, such as satellite launches, moon rovers, Venus missions, asteroid landings, and the development of a human space program. The Indian private sector, fueled by significant public investment from the Indian Space Research Organization, is experiencing rapid growth, demonstrating India’s commitment to become a key player in the global space arena.
Whether space exploration will contribute to stability or instability among great powers depends upon which resources are seen as scarce or abundant.
Will great power competition in space be managed, unmanaged, or non-competitive?
Al-Rodhan, Nayef. “The Future of Meta-Geopolitical Competition in Outer Space.” Italian Institute for International Political Studies. July 20, 2019.
Bingen, Kari A., Kaitlyn Johnson, and Makena Young. Space Threat Assessment 2023. CSIS Aerospace Security Project, 2023.
Blanc, Alexis A., Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Khrystyna Holynska, M. Scott Bond, and Stephen J. Flanagan. “Chinese and Russian Perceptions of and Responses to U.S. Military Activities in the Space Domain.” RAND Corporation, October 11, 2022.
Bowe, Alexander. “China’s Pursuit of Space Power Status and Implications for the United States.” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. April 11, 2019.
Colucci, Lamont. “Great Power Strategic Competition on Earth and in Space.” American Foreign Policy Council. July 20, 2021.
Goswami, Namrata, and Peter A. Garretson. Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space. Lexington Books, 2020.
Goswami, Namrata. “Great Power Competition and/or Cooperation in Space: The State of Play.” Perry World House (Spring 2022).
Janowski, Dominik P. “Russia and the Technological Race in an Era of Great Power Competition.” Center for Strategic & International Studies. September 14, 2021.
Jones, Andrew. “Chinese Company Plans to Launch Rocket Comparable to Falcon 9 in 2024.” SpaceNews, 27 June 2023.
“Seeking Strategic Advantage: How Geopolitical Competition and Cooperation Are Playing Out in Space.” Wilson Center. October 6, 2020.
“Seeking Strategic Advantage: How Geopolitical Competition and Cooperation are Playing Out in Space.” Wilson Center, The Aerospace Corporation, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, 6 Oct. 2020, Conference Session.
Malachowski, Jim. “Don’t Gamble on the Next Space Race: Win in the Orbital Gray Zone Now.” Space Force Journal. January 31, 2021.
Peoples, Columba. “The Growing ‘Securitization’ of Outer Space.” Space Policy 26, no. 4 (November 1, 2010): 205–8.
Space Foundation Releases The Space Report 2022 Q2 Showing Growth of Global Space Economy. (2022, July 27). Space Foundation. Retrieved October 19, 2022.
“UCS Satellite Database.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 1 Jan. 2023.
USSPACECOM Commander’s Strategic Vision. United States Space Command. 2021.
Note: we are using a new commenting system, which may require you to create a new account.