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The Financial Times
China accomplished something last weekend that only the United States and the Soviet Union had done before: successfully landing a spacecraft with a surface rover on Mars. Its success marks another step towards the country’s goal of becoming a “space power in all respects.” Last month it put the first part of a permanent space station into orbit. In the future, Beijing intends to send astronauts to the Moon.
However, taking into account deteriorating relations with the US, Beijing’s space ambitions add another potential point of contention between the superpowers, adding to tensions in the South China Sea, and Washington’s potential boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics for the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The competition is not just between state space agencies. China has more than 150 companies competing to build satellites and launch rockets to meet the growing demand for extraterrestrial infrastructure and services. Beijing is also forging space cooperation with Moscow, and this year they agreed to work together to build a lunar research base.
All of this activity highlights not only China’s geostrategic ambitions, but also how space is becoming an increasingly populated frontier. According to the Space Foundation, a US nonprofit organization, some 1,200 spacecraft were deployed in 2020, three times the total in 2019. Commercial satellite deployments increased 477% in 2020 compared to the previous year.
To prevent tensions from escalating, the international community must strive to establish governance rules and laws in space. The estimated value of the space economy last year, a record $ 385 billion, should be enough to focus minds. The same should be true of the fact that much of the interconnected world we live in, including the global financial system, is enabled by satellite communications.
In this context, the usefulness of creating internationally recognized standards for the space industries should be clear. The implementation, however, is much more complex in an environment dominated by rivalries between the US and China that are already generating an arms race in the space arena.
A good starting point would be the problem of space debris. The proliferation of space debris, which increases with most launches, threatens to unleash a chain reaction of orbital collisions that threatens the safety of space assets in all countries. Several organizations, including the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, have published collaborative guidelines suggesting best practices for sustainable space operations.
But despite those efforts, few international norms and standards exist. The US and China, as well as other space powers like Russia and India, should put aside their strategic rivalries and start working seriously to establish rules of conduct in space. Such cooperation would do nothing to stop the ongoing space arms race, but it would at least prop up the foundations for civilian use of space.