Earlier this week, China’s National Space Administration and Russia’s Roscosmos issued a memorandum of understanding outlining the construction of a space outpost called the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).
“China and Russia will use their accumulated experience in space science, research and development as well as the use of space equipment and space technology to jointly develop a road map for the construction of an international lunar scientific research station (ILRS),” read a statement by China’s chief space agency. According to the Chinese government, the joint initiative will include “planning, demonstration, design, development, implementation, and operation of scientific research station projects, including project promotion to the international aerospace community.”
A parallel Roscosmos statement added that Russia and China seek to “promote cooperation on the creation of an open-access ILRS for all interested countries and international partners, with the goal of strengthening research cooperation and promoting the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes in the interests of all mankind.”
Beijing is a relative newcomer to space exploration, but commands a space budget second only to the United States. In 2019, China became the first country to land an unmanned spacecraft on the far side of the moon. The success of the Chang’e 5 mission in the following year made China one of only three nations to bring lunar matter back to earth, and the first to do so in the past forty-four years.
The mechanism by which other countries can join the project is not immediately clear, nor did Roscosmos and the Chinese National Space Administration provide a timetable for the ILRS’ completion. Without explicitly mentioning the ILRS project, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow “appreciates” bilateral U.S.-Russian cooperation on space-related matters: “We appreciate the Russian-U.S. cooperation in the outer space. We hope it will be continued and hope it will not fall victim to various Russophobic manifestations.”
Even as relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorated rapidly in the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, space exploration held out as one of the last remaining domains of fruitful U.S.-Russian cooperation. But that long-standing partnership may finally be unraveling, as Roscosmos appears to be pivoting away from NASA to deepen bilateral relations with its Chinese counterpart. This emerging rift between the United States and Russia has been several years in the making; in 2020, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin openly criticized NASA’s Artemis initiative as “too U.S.-centric.” Earlier that year, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed General John W. “Jay” Raymond’s comments about Russia’s reported test launch of an anti-satellite missile as “Washington’s deliberate campaign to discredit Russia’s space activities and peace initiatives to prevent an arms race in outer space.”
Russia was still expected to supply an airlock for the Lunar Gateway— a space station in lunar orbit that was previously described by NASA as a “critical component” of the Artemis program—but even that symbolic gesture of goodwill has recently been dashed. Following the ILRS announcement, NASA said in a statement to The Verge that it “will be pursuing other options for the provider of the airlock.” Although the particulars of the Russo-Chinese project have yet to take shape, the ILRS venture appears to rival—rather than complement—the Lunar Gateway. The stage is set for a new space race between the great powers and, with it, newfound concerns over the future militarization of outer space. The United States, as well as both China and Russia, are currently developing a slew of space-based weapons; as their visions for the long-term development of space continue to diverge, the unsettling prospect of open military competition in that domain draws ever nearer.
The ILRS announcement is the latest vector in the complex and volatile America-China-Russia strategic triangle. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in late 2020 that a formal military alliance between Russia and China is not needed right now, but cannot be ruled out as a future possibility. Beijing explicitly rejects the notion of forming a united military front with Russia against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but continues to signal its support for geopolitical initiatives aimed at undercutting Washington’s global influence across a wide range of political, economic, and technical fronts. Earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China and Russia should become partners in the fight against “color revolutions”— a term closely linked with critiques of U.S. foreign policy. “We [China and Russia] should become a model of building strategic mutual trust, firmly supporting each other in safeguarding [our] core interests,” Wang said. “[We should] join hands in opposing ‘colour revolutions’ and combat against all kinds of disinformation.”
The State Department announced earlier that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Yang Jiechi in Alaska next week, marking the first formal meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials since President Joe Biden took office in January. The coming talks will likewise be the first major test of the Biden administration’s ability to press China on human rights even as it works to secure concessions from Beijing in policy areas including trade and cybersecurity.
Mark Episkopos is the national security reporter for the National Interest.