From a farside first to cislunar dominance? China appears to want to establish ‘space economic zone’ worth trillions

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A year that began with China claiming the first-ever landing on the far side of the moon came to a close with questionable claims the emerging superpower intends to make cislunar space the celestial equivalent of the disputed South China Sea.

The kerfuffle started this fall when China’s Science and Technology Daily newspaper reported that China wants to establish “space economic zone” between the Earth and the moon capable of generating $10 trillion a year for China by 2050.

Many of the news reports and opinion pieces that picked up on the Science and Technology Daily story in the weeks that followed portrayed it as official policy and repeated the $10 trillion figure without question. Some of the coverage went further, conflating the notional zone with something akin to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which grants coastal states special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources.

THE $10 TRILLION QUESTION

“China strives to build an Earth-moon space economic zone in the middle of this century,” states the headline on a 300-word story that ran in the Oct. 31 issue of Science and Technology Daily, a 33-year-old daily newspaper operated under China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. The story was a brief account of a report a senior official with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) — China’s main state-run space contractor — presented at a forum the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology hosted in Beijing. The official, Bao Weimin, in a report titled “Several Thoughts on the Development of Terrestrial and Lunar Space,” said CASC intends to carry out research on highly reliable, low-cost launch and in-space transportation in order to exploit the huge economic potential space holds for China. He called for completing basic research by 2030 and making major breakthroughs in key, unnamed technologies by 2040 in order to establish a “space economic zone” by the “middle of this century.”

Science and Technology Daily, citing “some experts,” stated that such a zone could produce $10 trillion in annual economic benefit for China by 2050.

The significance of these comments for Chinese space policy is difficult to gauge but, at the same time, useful and important to attempt to assess.

Marco Aliberti, a resident fellow at the European Space Policy Institute in Austria, said that it is difficult to discern whether Bao’s comments are bottom-up, coming from CASC, or a top-down initiative led by the Communist Party of China.

“However, considering the very nature of his intervention, it sounds like an attempt to further raise political backing on the current and future efforts of CASC,” Aliberti said.

In late 2017, CASC released a long-range space transportation road map outlining ambitions for a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane, fully reusable launchers by 2035 and a “nuclear shuttle” by 2045. The plans were widely seen as aspirational and technically daunting. The space economic zone Bao outlined at the Beijing forum appears predicated on these advances, as well as a push to develop space-based solar power capabilities.

“By highlighting the enormous economic and soft power payoffs that CASC could bring to the nation should it receive an appropriate level of support, it seems to me that Bao is playing the role of a policy entrepreneur, proposing ideas and trying to set the agenda of the government,” Aliberti said.

“We need to take such statements into account while assessing China’s space ambitions for an emergent strategic pattern” said Namrata Goswami, a space policy analyst who wrote about China’s purported $10 trillion vision a Washington Post op-ed headlined, “Trump is focused on the China trade war when he should be concerned about space.”

Goswami said Bao’s presentation, as summarized by Science and Technology Daily, is consistent with earlier policy articulations by Lt. Gen Zhang Yuilin of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF); Wu Weiren, chief designer of the Chang’e lunar probes; and lunar scientist Ye Peijin, who counseled in 2018 that if China does not take advantage of its present spacefaring capacities and establish a predominant presence on the moon, others will take over.

“That is why when Bao Weimin makes such a public presentation, we should safely assume that there is an official policy planning process underway to achieve such a goal,” Goswami stressed.

Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, however, said the comments may have had a specific domestic audience in mind.

“This is best seen as an individual, and perhaps an organization, within the bureaucracy trying to convince the leadership to give it funding for these programs. This is not uncommon in the space business.

“A lot of the Cold War U.S. and Soviet space projects started this way and many of those ideas were not successful,” Weeden noted, citing Wernher von Braun’s elaborate post-Apollo plans as an example.

“We also don’t know if any of this is actually possible. There’s a lot of speculation about the value of water and other space resources, but it’s a long way from being a proven fact,” Weeden said, adding that asteroid mining is even further away from being realized.

This general sentiment is backed up by Laura Forczyk, founder of the Atlanta-based consulting firm Astralytical. “It is highly ambitious but improbable that an Earth-Moon economy would be worth $10 trillion per year by 2050.

“Looking back at the last 30 years, spaceflight has had significant advancements, especially in the areas of satellite technology and reusable rocketry. However, spaceflight cadence and economic predictions of 30 years ago we’re overly optimistic and did not pan out,” Forczyk said.

Huang Jun, a professor at the Beihang University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Beijing, welcomed Bao’s comments, describing the ideas as imaginative, forward-looking and audacious.

“Bao has paid close attention to the issue of Earth-moon space economic zone in recent years and I appreciate this concept he put forward.”

Huang added the caveat that such ambitions face huge challenges, including better space transportation, the viability of extracting economic value from space-based resources and feasibility of establishing off-Earth infrastructure and habitable facilities.

Yet Huang remains optimistic, adding that, “the most important thing is how to achieve a balance between the cost and the benefit.”

Despite these variables the stakes remain high, Goswami said. Establishing such a zone would allow China to “write the rules and set standard operating procedures of who has access,” she said. China’s activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere are evidence of such strategic behavior, she added.

“The U.S. must factor in China’s future space ambitions, so as not to be taken by surprise by its space achievements. We saw such strategic surprise when China tested its [antisatellite weapon] in 2007, established the PLASSF in 2015, [and] landed on the far side of the moon,” Goswami said.

Weeden, however, sees comments such as those from Bao as fodder for other agendas. “In the U.S., these comments are being used by both the China hawks and our own space true believers as an argument for why America needs to ‘get there first,’” Weeden said.

Both Aliberti and Goswami note that international developments may well have been a trigger for Bao also. A recent report from U.S. Air Force Space Command stated: “space will be a major engine of national political, economic, and military power for whichever nations best organize and operate to exploit that potential.”

Forczyk, meanwhile, expects an international effort to establish Earth-moon space infrastructure by 2050, but the profitability of such an effort is uncertain.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.