As the world grows increasingly multipolar, beset by geopolitical tensions and a resurgence of great power rivalry, the dynamics that have historically defined terrestrial politics are being projected into the final frontier, outer space. Recent developments in Asia illustrate this trend. Notably, Pakistan joined China’s International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in October 2023, months after India signed the Artemis Accords with the United States in June. These declarations are not just diplomatic platitudes to indicate bilateral space cooperation between these states; they herald the dawn of astropolitical alliances that will have far-reaching ramifications for the bifurcation of the framework of global space governance.
Pakistan’s joining the ILRS marked the consolidation of three decades of space cooperation with China. Under the new agreement, Pakistan’s space program will continue to benefit from technological collaboration with China and Pakistani astronauts are expected to be trained with Chinese assistance and sent to space, likely to the newly established Chinese Tiangong Space Station. This collaboration parallels NASA and ISRO’s announcement that they’re collaborating on a framework for human space flight cooperation and will embark on a joint venture to the International Space Station this year.
On the other hand, India’s endorsement of the Artemis Accords signaled a departure from its historical stance of aversion to non-binding space regimes, considering India had traditionally aligned with a group of non-aligned countries in advocating for a multilaterally-negotiated legally binding verifiable mechanism. Therefore, India’s inclusion in the Artemis Accords has accentuated the geopolitical undercurrents influencing international space cooperation and has drawn a line in the cosmic sand, potentially forsaking its historic space cooperation with Russia and aligning with the U.S.’s vision for space exploration. India’s participation in the Artemis Accords also grants it a more significant role in shaping the future regulations and norms for global space governance.
Any state seeking to lead in future global space governance must be technologically advanced and hold an influential position in multilateral forums, allowing it to shape international norms and rules. To this end, China, with its ambitious space agenda, is on track to becoming the preeminent global space power and wielding significant diplomatic leverage in existing and future international forums on space governance. These astropolitical developments highlight diverging visions for global space exploration held by great powers with tense geopolitical relations. Space-faring nations now confront a diplomatic crossroads, and may be forced to align with either the Artemis Accords or the ILRS in accordance with their geopolitical and commercial interests.
Competing international coalitions
NASA announced the Artemis Accords in 2020 as a non-binding framework for space exploration, building upon the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and seeking to reinforce international space laws as more states expand their space programs and eye lunar missions in the coming decade. While the U.S. and the Soviet Union looked at space through a myopic military lens during the Cold War, the Artemis Accords denounce space militarization and embody a multilateral commitment to peaceful scientific inquiry and non-appropriation of celestial bodies.
As strategic competitors of the U.S., China and Russia have rejected the promise of the Artemis Accords and dismissed them for being redundant and heavily U.S.-centric. Russia is transitioning from its role in the International Space Station and is increasingly isolated from Western states. Consequently, it is forging ahead with China’s alternate conception of space exploration through the ILRS. China is spearheading the development of highly ambitious plans for constructing an international lunar base on the South Pole over the coming decade as a counterpoise to the international lunar base envisaged by the Artemis Program. China’s announcement of the ILRS Cooperation Organization further crystallizes the division in global space governance along geopolitical lines. The Artemis Accords currently have 33 signatories, encompassing leading Western space-faring nations, including the United Kingdom and France. The ILRS is gaining traction among aspiring states with seven participants so far, including Azerbaijan, South Africa, and Belarus, with Pakistan being the latest entry
Ostensibly, the Artemis Accords and the ILRS initiative aren’t mutually exclusive on paper, considering their emphasis on absolute gains arising from international space cooperation. However, they subtly mirror the competing outlooks of the U.S. and China towards the new space race as even though both international coalitions espouse the value of broad collaboration, the tensions between the U.S. and China make it unlikely that astropolitics and astropolitical alliances will be able to transcend the pervasive zero-sum nature of terrestrial geopolitics. For example, cooperation in space between the U.S. and China remains barred by the 2011 Wolf Amendment. This starkly contrasts the cooperative essence of the Artemis Accords that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had proclaimed would underpin International space partnerships — though he excludes China, which he labeled as a competitor and warned might occupy the Moon if it gets there first.
Against this backdrop, China has laid the groundwork for alternative multilateral initiatives that revolve around space, such as the China-CELAC Space Cooperation Forum, designed to court the Latin American and Caribbean states in America’s backyard and convince them to join its International Lunar Research Station. In this regard, it is noteworthy how the incumbent Brazilian president vowed to “balance world geopolitics” by fostering closer ties with China; enhanced space cooperation would be an essential facet of China’s partnerships with its allies.
However, considering the volatile nature of contemporary geopolitics, it is yet to be determined whether such competing initiatives for international space cooperation can live up to the cooperative spirit of the Outer Space Treaty, or if they will merely extend terrestrial realpolitik into the cosmos.
Mustafa Bilal is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS) in Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org