China's Moon Base Bluster is Just That
Despite this posturing and increased cooperation with Russia, China is lightyears away from a moon base.
A Chinese moon base sounds like the punchline of a bad conspiracy theory. But Yang Mengfei—a member of the China Aerospace and Technology Corporation (CASC)—sees it as an ambitious goal within reach of the People’s Republic of China. Despite this posturing, China is lightyears away from a moon base.
Late last month, Mengfei called on China to seize the opportunity to build critical space infrastructure on the moon that would lay the groundwork for the economy of the future. Yet the latest announcement about a Chinese-Russian lunar base is just another piece of propaganda; U.S. policymakers should not have serious concerns about a Chinese lunar base.
Certainly, China’s advancements in space exploration in the twenty-first century are not to be ignored. China’s Chang’e 4 lunar explorer became the first space probe to land on the far side of the moon in 2013. Furthermore, in recent years China has conducted high-resolution imaging of the Earth’s surface and constructed the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS), which provides China with economic and security data that informs its industrial development. The Chinese government has also proposed its own Lunar Research Station (LRS) in partnership with Russia to counter the United State’s Artemis Program, which seeks to return U.S. astronauts to the moon.
Mengfei and the Chinese Communist Party obviously want to tout these accomplishments to increase China’s prestige on the international stage. However, China’s space technology is still lightyears behind the United States in terms of reusability and cost efficiency. China’s main rocket used for heavy payloads, the Long March 9, is having to be completely redesigned in order to make it a reusable rocket on par with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and other privately-owned reusable rockets in the United States. This redesign could delay the Long March 9’s utilization for a decade or more. Previous launch failures, like that of the Long March 5 in 2018, have also delayed Chinese space missions by a number of years. China’s ability to calibrate its own rockets will take time, but it is in the diplomatic sphere that the CCP’s moon base ambitions may face their biggest challenge.
The war in Ukraine has exposed Russia’s space programs to the budgetary chopping block, making any potential assistance from Russia to China’s space program negligible at best. Currently, these cuts stand at $557 million, with funding for scientific research and development cut completely. This comes on the heels of Russia announcing it would quit the International Space Station in 2024, thereby sacrificing a key source of revenue and forsaking the massive amount of leverage it possessed over the United States and other Western space programs. Russia previously used the Baikonur Cosmodrome to launch other nations’ satellites and payloads into space in exchange for payments by the United States and several other Western nations but has refused to do so over the war in Ukraine, depriving the government of millions more in revenue. Those countries are now turning to the United States or the private sector to launch their products into orbit. Russia has spurned countries that have sanctioned the Kremlin in favor of countries on friendlier terms with Moscow, but this has also resulted in a substantial loss of revenue that has severely hampered the Kremlin’s space program.
China’s decision to partner with a diplomatically isolated ally that now lacks any major cutting-edge space technology or financial investment in spacefaring can only hobble China’s own ambitions. While both China and Russia recognize the massive potential for moon resources, like minerals and solar power generation, Russia can only tepidly support Chinese alternatives to U.S.-led space policy. This renders China and Russia’s LRS partnership a mere theoretical alternative to the U.S. Artemis Accords being presented to other nations. What’s more, partnerships with other countries have failed due to U.S. export laws that prohibit the transfer of sensitive technologies. With already-limited funding, Russia’s ability to dodge U.S. sanctions will be restricted, meaning its contributions to China’s moon base ambitions will be minimal at best.
China’s successful strides to join the ranks of space-faring nations is something that the Communist Party rightly touts in the diplomatic sphere. Yet the notion that China is serious about putting together an Earth-Moon system that will generate billions of dollars and solidify Chinese control of the Moon is pure fantasy. While Yang Mengfei’s recent success as chief designer and chief commander of China’s 2020 Chang’e-5 lunar sampling mission allows him to promote China’s breakneck pace in matching U.S. capabilities in space, mega-projects such as the Chinese moon settlements exist only in Beijing’s imagination.
Roy Mathews is an Innovation Fellow at Young Voices. He is a graduate of Bates College and a former Fulbright Fellow. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the Boston Herald.
Image: Marcos Silva/Shutterstock.