A mosaic of Shackleton Crater near the luanr south pole, showing the depths of the crater. The illuminated rim area will be targeted by China's Chang'e-7 mission.
A mosaic of Shackleton Crater created by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera and ShadowCam teams. Credit: NASA/KARI/ASU

HELSINKI — China holds a seemingly positive stance towards the use of space resources, according to a recent submission made by a Chinese delegation to the United Nations.

The delegation appears to state that China considers space resource utilization as permissible, but must be conducted in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967.

China’s submission treats the use of space resources as legal, but also calls for adherence to the existing frameworks of international space law, with the OST as the cornerstone.

The document was submitted to the Working Group on Legal Aspects of Space Resource Activities of the Legal Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). 

COPUOS is a body of the United Nations tasked with governing the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity, overseeing matters related to space science and technology and their applications. The Working Group plays a critical role in addressing the legal challenges posed by the utilization of space resources, helping to shape the international legal framework that will govern these activities.

The submission could be seen as a beneficial development, helping to set the stage for a dialogue on the legal frameworks for governing the use of space resources.

“This engagement by China on the international discussion on space resources is a positive development,” Christopher Johnson, director of legal affairs and space law for the Secure World Foundation, told SpaceNews. “It tells us that China is taking international fora like COPUOS seriously, and seems to be engaging in good faith with the fora and with the process. 

“Additionally, it’s welcome to have a clear statement of Chinese positions on these issues, and this informs other States in their approach and preparations to the international discussions going on at the UN.” 

Johnson interprets the Chinese stance as seemingly largely aligned with the broader international consensus on the use of space resources. That is, the right to possess and use space resources is not only desirable by space agencies and national governments, but is also permissible under the current international law. 

Discussion and consideration of the use and legality utilizing space resources has grown in recent years due to advancements in the space sector, the rise of commercial companies and renewed interest in the moon. 

This has made international law and diplomacy related to the subject matters of key focus, with the distance between the respective stances of the U.S. and China likely to be pivotal. 

Johnson notes that the Chinese submission seems to put both the U.S. and China somewhat on the same page, with both understanding the desirability of using space resources and their necessity for any long term presence in space, and that such activities are legal under the OST. 

There are a number of issues for the international community to settle going forward, some of which are noted in the Chinese submission. These include how space resources can be utilized in a sustainable fashion and in a way that fosters scientific investigations, while also ensuring peaceful relations in space between states and other actors in space. 

Another key matter is the question of how states supervise their national activities, making sure private companies comply with the law. Additionally, all such activities will also need to preclude any national territorial annexation of the moon or other celestial bodies, as prohibited by Article II of the OST. 

“I’m happy to see the inclusion of important concepts such as sustainability, coordination, cooperation, mutual assistance, due regard, and the mention of scientific investigations throughout the Chinese submission,” says Johnson. “These are all solid foundations for the international discussions.”

China’s submission also restates its own strategic vision for lunar exploration. The country plans to launch the Chang’e-6 lunar far side sample return mission around May this year. Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8, launching around 2026 and 2028 respectively, will explore lunar resources at the lunar south pole and verify the in-situ utilization of these resources. 

These missions will be the basis for establishing the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the 2030s in collaboration with international partners. 

The submission will help clarify Chinese positions on the non-appropriation principle of Article II, scientific and commercial activities, and issues of cooperation and sustainability before the rules for the ILRS are known. Johnson also notes that the Chinese submission is also, seemingly, a recognition of the near-term need for coordination mechanisms to ensure safety, even as the Working Group develops principles for space resources use.

A number of important meetings centering on the legal matters of space resources lie ahead in the coming months. This includes an expert meeting of the Working Group later this month in Luxembourg during Space Resources Week. 

While results are not guaranteed, “2024 could be very consequential for the legal governance of space resources,” Johnson says.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...