The Moon, the U.S, China and a space dog


With NASA having recently landed a new rover (named Curiosity) on Mars, Ryan (jokingly I assume) raised the question of how space is divided up and what the chances are that Mars can become America’s 51st state. Unlike the Antarctic, space colonisation poses several prominent difficulties to these territorial disputes on account of it being….  in space. In space sovereignty disputes, International Relations, and other concepts we have discussed in class become even more theoretical than they were before (so I know everyone will really enjoy reading this). The great Space Race seems to have fallen by the wayside since the end of the Cold War, perhaps due to a realisation that we should fix Earth before moving on to decimate other planets (but more likely due to the heavy costs involved in having a space program), and thus Space colonization, travel and answers to questions surrounding extra-terrestrial sovereignty seem even further away than before (perhaps light years?). With the United States cancelling of their Shuttle program this year, landing Curiousity on Mars seems like the biggest victory NASA may get for a while (assuming it doesn’t find anything interesting on Mars that is)[1]. Yet still a reflection of sovereignty in space can raise interesting questions. The similarities and comparisons that many draw between China versus the U.S today and the Cold War show that a renewed Space Race may not be that far off (even if it is slightly one sided).

China launched a crew of three into space in June this year, and has announced its ambition to build a Chinese space station by 2020 (which seems an awfully long time considering how quick they normally manage to get things built [2])which indicates the increasing aspirations of the Chinese [3]. Furthermore, both India and Japan have indicated their own ambitions to reach the moon (maybe I was wrong to write off the Space Race)[4] [5]. Why does this matter? In John Hickman’s piece ‘Red Moon Rising’ he writes that China is a “revisionist power, seeking opportunities to assert its enhanced relative position in international affairs”. The national prestige that would be gained by being the first to settle on the Moon would be vast, not to mention the potential scientific and material benefits that might entail such a feat (moon minerals, moontians/martians?, helium 3, that dog the USSR sent up in 1957). Furthermore, Hickman notes, the moon could possess a viable location for Chinese military as well as renewable energy via solar panels.

So what’s stopping China from doing this other than the obvious spatial and atmospheric restraints (which I must admit probably make this blog largely irrelevant)? Why its the ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the moon and other Celestial Bodies’ and its brother the 1967 Space Treaty of course [6][7]! These treaties (TPGASEUOS from henceforth) were agreed upon in the United Nations General Assembly in the 60’s and effectively (in so far as no ones bothered to go against them yet) prevent states from claiming sovereignty or placing WMDs in space including Earth’s orbit. Thus, China’s plans (whether they had them or not) have been foiled by their strong commitment to liberal institutionalism and all that it manifests.

Hickman argues however, that China (or any nation for that matter) could bypass the effects of this by withdrawing from the treaty (which only takes a year in this case)if they really wanted to. According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties after renouncing or withdrawing from a treaty, you are no longer bound by its obligations, and thus by withdrawing from TPGASEUOS and establishing a permanent moon base with people living on the moon a compelling case for ownership could have been made in much the same way that Captain Cook and co did when they raised flags to claim territory for the British Empire. Would China do this? Hickman argues ‘maybe’; it is unlikely that China would want to claim the whole moon (due to the costs in doing so), rather a small slice. As such, if it was the first country to do so it is unlikely that other states would be able to prevent it, and much in the same way that countries trade with those that have questionable human rights abuses, they would be forced to trade with China for access to a potentially vast array of moon materials (and in Russia’s case to get Laika their dog back). The potential benefits could far outweigh the blow back from the International Community for China. Thus, the question of whether China would snap up the moon if it could falls down to the question of whether or not material benefits outweigh a potential diminished standing within the International Community. Realist theories of IR would obviously assume that China in this instance would be more than happy to claim a chunk of the moon, and Liberal theories could potentially struggle to argue that China would be unwilling to break treaties and norms of moon sovereignty considering other nations inability to abide by laws closer to home (landmine conventions etc). The moon then presents a new frontier for testing our conceptualization of IR theories and how states would act, and it is difficult to predict how this scenario would play out. In all honesty I think the feat of landing on the moon would be large enough that confusing complications of sovereignty and ‘moon grabbing’ would arise later rather straight away. Interestingly, counter to Hickman there is one potential scenario on earth that could present a compelling argument of why China wouldn’t claim the moon, or at least would later retract claims when others got there (mind if the South China sea is anything to go off, its not a very good counter argument).

The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 and ratified in 1961, is unique in that although several nations have laid territorial claims to Antarctica, they have all agreed to use the space as a giant scientific laboratory- which is considerably different to how most land spaces have been divided up and used in the past. This monumental treaty is important in a variety of ways, and shows an alternative and peaceful example of how the Moon- or Mars might be used if the need (and the means) ever arose. Both the TPGASEUOS and Antarctic Treaty are similar in a variety of ways as will be discussed further on. Perhaps what makes the Antarctic treaty interesting from an International Relations perspective is the timing in which it was signed (during the Cold War), the fact that land claims were disputed by a variety of nations, and the capacity that the space had for military use.

Realist assertions of how states are primarily interested in relative gains (seeing the world in zero-sum gains) makes the signing of this treaty , especially by the U.S and USSR, an interesting phenomenon. At a time in which Realist theories of IR were dominant, states willingly decided to sign a treaty effectively voiding them of their right to use Antarctica in a military capacity or to colonize. Surely this is something Realism struggles to explain? This was the first arms control treaty signed during the Cold War and is still in effect to this day. Although the natural environment and geographical isolation could severely limit the military benefits that nations could gain from building a military base ‘down south’, it is still possible to see how countries such as the Soviet Union would have gained from such a move. Primarily, the geo-strategic benefits of having a military base underneath South America, Australia, and New Zealand would have struck a serious blow to Allied attempts at keeping these regions out of Soviet control and would provide a fast point (at least during the summer) from which operations could have been launched. By controlling significant portions of the East, North and South, the Soviets would have locked the West in a giant pincer move. Other benefits are also apparent, mainly regarding energy such as oil and Whale blubber (naturally), but also things like ice (frozen, yet fresh, water)[8]. While such sources would be relatively difficult to obtain due to the natural environment, the fact that countries have been considering it when the Antarctic treaty expires in  2048 shows its plausibility (albeit almost a hundred years later). The establishment of the treaty was undertaken by states in full knowledge of the potential benefits that conquest of the land could achieve, and it seems dubious to think that TPGASEUOS was signed under different conditions (although the latter was probably considered relatively non-consequential due to how far off living on the moon may have seemed at the time).

While the Antarctic Treaty does not provide a compelling counter argument to Hickmans of why China could, and whether China would settle on the moon, it does show an alternative scenario where states have agreed to back down from colonizing a lump of ice (or in the moons instance rock?). It is difficult to make predictions on how states would behave using theories of IR on earth, let alone in space, and so whether China even manages to accomplish this task and what will happen if it does is still very much ‘in the air’. To me, I still believe that the Russians somehow successfully managed to land their dog on the moon, who runs around to this day living off moon dust and not ageing due to the Moons atmosphere.











4 comments on “The Moon, the U.S, China and a space dog

  1. aidangnoth says:

    Ps, I know some of you might think that Laika never made it to the moon. Leave the dog out of counter arguments. Other wise the next post will be on animal rights in space

  2. glenndavy70 says:

    Aidan, I was reading your post and it got me thinking…

    Another interesting aspect of all this (as per our quick discussion this arvo) is what differentiates The Space Treaty and the subsequent Moon Treaty from The Antarctic Treaty was their use of The Common Heritage of Mankind as their guiding principle. This principle essentially seeks to preserve certain extant artefacts, be they cultural or natural, for the use of all of humanity and then only for peaceful purposes. It’s use is relatively modern (The Space Treaty was the first time that it had really been used as a legal concept), but I guess its lineage can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s cosmopolitan concept, so the idea is certainly not new.

    The costs of space exploration in the 1960’s was prohibitive, but America and Russia’s forays into space were made using a cost/benefit analysis that, while still factoring in economics, were probably more about prestige and ‘winning’ hearts and minds in the Cold War. Nevertheless, remove the spectre of the Cold War, and I would hazard a guess that a pure cost/benefit analysis of going to the moon in the 60s would not have made economic sense. Remove this American/Russian competition and it is easy to see why the Common Heritage of Mankind principle’s use in the Space and Moon Treaty was not really contentious at the time; as the need to, and actual possibility of, colonising space was probably still considered science fiction, and any possibility of resource extraction would have been not just technologically impossible but expensive.

    Like you mention above China clearly has aspirations in space and moreover considers the militarisation of space as inevitable[1]. So it does indeed remain to be seen what they would make of the principle (I’d hazard a guess of ‘nothing much’).

    The principle directly challenges concepts of sovereignty, and prior sovereign claims over territories (such as those in Antarctica). It isn’t used in The Antarctic Treaty and as such that treaty remains a bit of an exclusive club. China does belong to it, but also shows signs of not necessarily respecting it as it has indicated that it wishes to explore extracting its resources.

    And you can read all about that it my forthcoming research essay (once I have finished it)…


    1. “China to Develop Space Military Capabilities”

  3. aidangnoth says:

    I look forward to it, although I wish I had spoken to you before I wrote the blog. China is not alone in querying resource extraction from Antarctica, even ‘clean green’ New Zealand has been tentatively looking into it apparently (according to that stuff article I sighted at least), and I’m sure there are many others.

    What do you think the chances of States renewing the Antarctic treaty in 2048 when it expires are? Or do you think a massive land grab could occur?

  4. sengad says:

    Great post Aidan!
    As for the renewal of the Antarctic treaty… Won’t it partly depend on how much ice there’s left? (re climate change and all) Apparently European countries are quite keen on exploiting the riches of Greenland, which up until now were out of reach (

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