Report: China Could Follow South China Sea Strategy in Seeking Space Resources

Optical Mining of Asteroids, Moons, and Planets to Enable Sustainable Human Exploration and Space Industrialization (Credits: Joel Sercel)

Continuing our look at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2019 Report to Congress, we examine how China is seeking to shape the governance of space activities. [Full Report]

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

China’s actions in asserting sovereignty over the disputed South China Sea could serve as a model by which that nation would claim extraterrestrial resources and consolidate its control over key space assets, a new report to the U.S. Congress warned.

“Contrary to international norms governing the exploration and commercial exploitation of space, statements from senior Chinese officials signal Beijing’s belief in its right to claim use of space-based resources in the absence of a clear legal framework specifically regulating mining in space,” according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2019 report.

“Reflecting a sense of urgency in establishing its national interests in space, in 2015 Ye Peijian, the head of China’s lunar exploration program, likened the moon and Mars to the Senkaku Islands and the Spratly Islands, respectively, and warned not exploring them may result in the usurpation of China’s ‘space rights and interests’ by others,” the document added.

The Senkaku Islands are a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan that are also claimed by China and Taiwan. The islands are close to busy shipping lanes and rich fishing grounds. There might also be extensive offshore oil deposits near the islands.

Overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. (Credit: Voice of America)

The Spratly Islands are a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea composed of approximately 45 islands, cays, reefs and shoals. The islands are occupied by military forces from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Brunei also claims an exclusive economic zone.

China has been building and fortifying artificial islands atop coral reefs and shoals to strengthen its claims to the South China Sea and its rich oil, natural gas and fishing resources. It is using the islands to project its military power throughout the region and to control vital shipping routes.

Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands being transformed into an artificial island by China in May 2015. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

In 2013, Philippines sought to invalidate China’s claim to vast areas of the China Sea by seeking arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Permanent Court of Arbitration unanimously sided with the Philippines in 2016. However, the ruling had no effect; China called the decision “ill founded” and ignored it.

In her testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, independent analyst Namrata Goswami warned that China could follow a similar strategy in space.

“In particular, she argued that China’s activities in Antarctica and the South China Sea—where it has on paper committed to non-escalatory behavior while incrementally advancing its territorial claims by force—present a ‘clear systematic pattern’ China may one day repeat,” the report stated. “To consolidate control over space, China may first develop capacity to be present, then establish this presence, and finally develop claims to justify its presence, she concluded.”

The commission found that existing international space law has no legal mechanism to adjudicate ownership claims of space resources.

“The foundational Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to which both the United States and China are parties, specifies that celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation but is vague on the legal status of resources extracted from those bodies,” the report stated.

The United States and Luxembourg have passed laws recognizing the right of private companies to mine, own and use space resources. China signed a memorandum of understanding with Luxembourg in 2018 ” to codify law granting companies the rights to materials they mine in space,” the document added.

The commission noted that China has played a constructive role in helping to establish international norms for space activities. In 2018, China worked with the United States and Russia in assisting the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space reach consensus on guidelines relating to space debris, space traffic management and crowded orbits.

On other matters, China has worked to further its national interest in opposition to U.S. goals. China and Russia have rejected a Code of Conduct in Space proposed by the European Union in favor the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space.

The United States opposes the proposed space weapons treaty “because it does not define what constitutes a space weapon, include a verification mechanism for treaty adherence, or restrict development or stockpiling of ground-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, all of which would allow Beijing to continue placing U.S. and other foreign space assets at risk with its growing arsenal of ground-based counterspace weapons,” the report stated.

“Then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in April 2019 that China would field a new ground-based directed-energy counterspace system by 2020, underlining the main reason for U.S. skepticism of the proposed treaty, which is that terrestrial ASAT capabilities are the most pressing threat to space systems,” the document added.

For more on China’s military space program and ASATs, see: China Aims to Knock Out U.S. Space Systems in Conflict.

Recommendations to Congress

The commission recommended that “Congress urge the [Trump] Administration to actively participate in international space governance institutions to shape their development in a way that suits the interests of the United States and its allies and partners and to strengthen U.S. engagement with key coalitional allies and partners in the space domain.”

The commission also recommended that the National Space Council:

  • develop a long-term economic space resource policy strategy, including an assessment of the viability of extraction of space-based precious minerals, onsite exploitation of space-based natural resources, and space-based solar power;
  • perform a comparative assessment of China’s space resource strategies and programs;
  • conduct an assessment of U.S. strategic interests in or relating to cislunar space;
  • develop a plan to create a space commodities exchange to ensure the United States drives the creation of international standards for interoperable commercial space capabilities.
  • create a plan to streamline and strengthen U.S. cooperation with allies and partners in space.

An excerpt from the commission’s report follows.

Seeking to Shape Space Governance Norms

China has fought to contest existing norms and sought to promote its leadership role in international space governance institutions to shape global space norms and practices in ways that benefit its economic and other national interests.

Contrary to international norms governing the exploration and commercial exploitation of space, statements from senior Chinese officials signal Beijing’s belief in its right to claim use of space-based resources in the absence of a clear legal framework specifically regulating mining in space.

Reflecting a sense of urgency in establishing its national interests in space, in 2015 Ye Peijian, the head of China’s lunar exploration program, likened the moon and Mars to the Senkaku Islands and the Spratly Islands, respectively, and warned not exploring them may result in the usurpation of China’s “space rights and interests” by others.

Echoing the language of General Secretary Xi’s “community of common human destiny,” in June 2019, Shi Zhongjun, China’s ambassador to the UN, called for the strengthening of outer space governance in order to build a “shared future.”

Liza Tobin, a U.S. government China specialist, contended in her personal capacity that the underlying meaning of this slogan is “Beijing’s long-term vision for transforming the international environment” to be more beneficial to its interests and more receptive to its governance system.

In her testimony before the Commission, [independent analyst] Dr. [Namrata] Goswami warned of the consequences of Beijing extending its vision of governance and sovereignty to outer space. In particular, she argued that China’s activities in Antarctica and the South China Sea—where it has on paper committed to non-escalatory behavior while incrementally advancing its territorial claims by force—present a “clear systematic pattern” China may one day repeat. To consolidate control over space, China may first develop capacity to be present, then establish this presence, and finally develop claims to justify its presence, she concluded.

Current international space law does not include a legal mechanism to clearly adjudicate ownership of space-based resources, leaving room for interpretation based on the dictates of a country’s national interests. The foundational Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to which both the United States and China are parties, specifies that celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation but is vague on the legal status of resources extracted from those bodies.

While most countries believe the extraction of space-based resources is not incompatible with the ban on sovereignty over these bodies, there is no agreement on what the framework for such activities should be.

Both Washington and Beijing have taken steps to secure private commercial interests in space mining. The United States passed a commercial space law in 2015, and in 2018 China signed a memorandum of understanding with Luxembourg—the first European country to develop a legal framework for space mining—to codify law granting companies the rights to materials they mine in space.

In 2018, Wu Weiren, chief of the Chang’e project, identified 29 other spacefaring countries that have introduced space laws and pointed out that China is currently the only space power without a space law, claiming China’s system of space laws and regulations is not adequately developed.

Officials at the China National Space Administration (CNSA), China’s public-facing space agency that serves mostly to raise the profile of China’s space program, announced in 2014 the CNSA was expecting a comprehensive domestic space law to be introduced by 2020. Although the CNSA asserted China will “always abide by international space law,” Beijing’s commitment in practice will depend on how comprehensive its own space law is because the international treaties are not self-executing.

To advance its interests in space, China has generally followed norms outlined by existing space governance treaties. Because the multilateral fora established by these treaties are relatively weak, however, China has viewed them as useful venues for demonstrating its adherence to some internationally-accepted protocols while also advancing its own initiatives, a number of which do not align with U.S. interests.

For example, according to Brian Weeden, a space expert who has observed China’s participation in space governance fora, China played a constructive role in 2018 along with the United States and Russia in helping members of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space reach consensus on guidelines to multilaterally address challenges such as space debris, crowded orbits, and traffic management.

In other cases, China has advocated for causes not in line with U.S. interests. Instead of an EU-proposed Code of Conduct in Space, which seeks to enhance safety in space operations through transparency mechanisms and confidence-building measures, China— along with Russia—has supported a draft treaty banning weapons in space and a proposal for a second treaty banning the first placement of such weapons, despite programs in China that appear to be preparations to weaponize space.

The United States opposes the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space because it does not define what constitutes a space weapon, include a verification mechanism for treaty adherence, or restrict development or stockpiling of ground-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, all of which would allow Beijing to continue placing U.S. and other foreign space assets at risk with its growing arsenal of ground-based counterspace weapons.

Then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in April 2019 that China would field a new ground-based directed-energy counterspace system by 2020, underlining the main reason for U.S. skepticism of the proposed treaty, which is that terrestrial ASAT capabilities are the most pressing threat to space systems.