The competition and cooperation in outer space is not something new in International Relations. Outer Space been an integral factor of military as well as socio-economic policy of three major space faring nations (U.S., Russia and China). Over the last decade, the race to explore and exploit outer space has increased at a very rapid pace. The U.S. has always tried to maintain its supremacy in this domain and has been successful to a great extent while having stronger competitors like Russia and China. China claims that it will start asteroid exploration by 2025 and Russia is also looking forward to launching a Moon mission in 2021.
Since President Richard Nixon, there have been significant developments in the U.S. space policies, but major developments took place during Trump Presidency. In 2005, President Bush said we were gearing up to go to the Moon with the Constellation program. In 2010, President Obama said we were headed to Mars, and in 2017 President Trump decided it was actually the Moon again. Though there was a continuation of previous policies, but Trump administration materialized long awaited policies much earlier than expected such as creation of Space Force and resumption of the National Space Council (NSC).
Donald Trump set daring goals from crewed missions to the Moon and Mars to a Space Force. On 20th December 20, the U.S. Space Force marks its first birthday. Another major development during Trump’s administration was signing of Artemis Accords. On 13 October 2020, the Artemis Accords Principles for a Safe, Peaceful and Prosperous Future commonly known as the Artemis Accords were signed by eight founding members including: Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, UAE, UK, and the U.S. According to the pioneers these accords are to ensure peace in outer space and outline behavior on the Moon. However, the accords could have opposite effect, leading to escalation of competition and rivalry in space between the U.S. and its partners on one hand and Russia and China on the other.
These accords are non-binding principles that are drafted to guide the conduct of states involved in the space exploration with the intention of advancing NASA’s Artemis Program to place the first women and the next man on the Moon. The program is aimed at returning humankind to the Moon by 2024 to explore lunar surface. After this, it will lead to send humans to Mars.
The text consists of thirteen sections and ten principles to guide future space activities related to exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies. The signatories of Accords have assured in writing that all the activities carried out by them would be exclusively for peaceful purposes and in line with international law. However, the term peaceful has been mostly referred to as non-aggressive instead of non-military. There is no explicit prohibition of military activities on celestial bodies in the text of Artemis Accords.
The language of the Accords is similar to the Outer Space Treaty (OST), Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer space. However, there is no effective mechanism to verify if these principles are being implemented in true spirit or not. Even at global level, there is no effective mechanism to verify if the UN five treaties on outer space are being followed or not. However, the U.S. tries to maintain its hegemony by setting rules as per its own understanding.
The Artemis Accords are in line with the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 and the Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources. According to aforementioned document the U.S. companies are entitled to “possess, own, transport, use and sell” space resources and it is by no means violation of international law. However, Russia is against this and consider it as a “total disrespect for the international law order.” Moreover, the executive order rejects the Moon Agreement considering it too restrictive. As of now no major space faring nation has ratified Moon Agreement. History suggests that cooperation and competition go hand in hand. These accords will trigger competition and conflict over exploitation and utilization of the resources on the Moon and other celestial bodies among states and private entities.
The two most prominent U.S. competitors, Russia and China are on the same page when it comes to Artemis, that these accords are too U.S. centric. According to Russians, these accords are similar to the U.S. policy of colonialism. ROSCOSMOS Director General Dmitry Rogozin has strongly opposed the accords, arguing that “the principle of invasion is the same, whether it be the Moon or Iraq.” Likewise, China also viewed these accords as colonization of Moon. According to the U.S. congressional prohibition, NASA is not allowed to cooperate with China.
One of the major loopholes is that only eight founding members were in the policy making of these accords. It wasn’t discussed on any international forums such as United Nations. All the other space governance related proposals like Sino-Russian proposed, Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), all came under debate at international platforms and got rejected. The Artemis Accords were negotiated among eight countries only. Moreover, any country that wants to join in future will have to accede to terms that were already defined by founding members.
Moving further, the accords talk about having safety zones, it can be viewed as claim of sovereignty over that specific area, which is against Article II of the OST. It prohibits any nations from claiming sovereignty over the Moon or any other celestial object. But Artemis Accord is contrary to it.
The new Cold war in space has already started. These accords be seen as formation of “Space NATO.” Likewise, it is an obvious attempt by the U.S. to maintain supremacy in outer space through allies and partners. These activities are also aimed at encirclement of China in outer space. China and Russia are also making progress in this domain by leaps and bounds. In view of prevailing strategic environment where Russia-US and US- China political confrontation is at its apex, arms control treaties or successful talks on the non-weaponization of space is a utopian idea.
Like the Cold War, the recent global geopolitical balance of power depends upon the leadership in outer space. The ongoing arms race in outer space is highly alarming that too in the absence of space governance mechanism. Likewise, the change in administration is critical for the future of US space program. American leadership in space highly depends upon the continuation of bipartisan approach but it will come with consequences. The recently concluded Artemis Accords will also generate competition and may end up with “Space Blocks” led by US and China-Russia.