Even during times of conflict on the ground, space has historically been an arena for collaboration between nations. But trends over the past decade suggest that the nature of cooperation in space is changing, and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted these changes.
I am an international relations scholar who studies power distributions in space: who are the main actors, what capabilities do they possess, and with whom do they choose to cooperate? Some scholars predict a future in which individual states pursue various levels of dominance, while others envision a scenario in which commercial entities bring nations together.
But I think the future may be different. In recent years, groups of nations with similar strategic interests on Earth have come together to further their interests in space, forming what I call “space blocs.”
From state-led space efforts to collaboration
The United States and the Soviet Union dominated space activities during the Cold War. Despite tensions on the ground, the two acted carefully to avoid causing crises and even cooperated on a number of projects in space.
As more countries developed their own space agencies, a number of international collaborative groups emerged. These include the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems.
In 1975, 10 European nations founded the European Space Agency. In 1998, the US and Russia joined forces to build the International Space Station, which is now supported by 15 countries.
These multinational companies focused primarily on scientific collaboration and data sharing.
The rise of space blocks
The European Space Agency, which now includes 22 nations, could be considered among the first space blocs. But a more pronounced shift towards this type of power structure can be seen after the end of the Cold War. Countries with shared interests on the ground began to band together to pursue specific mission objectives in space, forming space blocs.
In the last five years, several new space blocks have emerged with various levels of space capabilities. These include the African Space Agency, with 55 member states; the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, with 7 member states; and the Arab Space Coordination Group, with 12 member states from the Middle East.
These groups allow nations to collaborate closely with others in their blocs, but the blocs also compete with each other. Two recent space blocs, the Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian lunar accord, are an example of such competition.
race to the moon
The Artemis Accords were launched in October 2020. They are led by the US and currently include 18 member countries. The group’s goal is to get people back to the moon by 2025 and to establish a governance framework for exploration and mining on the moon, Mars and beyond. The mission aims to build a research station at the south pole of the moon with a supporting lunar space station called Gateway.
Similarly, in 2019, Russia and China agreed to collaborate on a mission to send people to the south pole of the moon by 2026. This joint Sino-Russian mission also aims to build a lunar base and place a space station in lunar orbit.
That these blocs do not collaborate to accomplish similar missions on the moon indicates that strategic interests and rivalries on the ground have moved into space.
Any nation can join the Artemis Accords. But Russia and China, along with several of their allies on Earth, have not done so because some perceive the deals as an effort to expand the US-dominated international order into outer space.
Similarly, Russia and China plan to open up their future lunar research station to all interested parties, but no Artemis country has expressed interest. The European Space Agency has even suspended several joint projects it had planned with Russia, and is expanding its partnerships with the US and Japan instead.
The impact of space blocks on the ground
In addition to seeking power in space, countries are also using space blocks to strengthen their spheres of influence on the ground.
One example is the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, which was formed in 2005. Led by China, it includes Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey.
While its overall goal is the development and launch of satellites, the organization’s main goal is to expand and standardize the use of the Chinese BeiDou navigation system, the Chinese version of GPS. Countries using the system could become dependent on China, as is the case with Iran.
The role of private space companies
There has been a tremendous growth in commercial activities in space in the last decade. As a result, some scholars see a future of space cooperation defined by shared commercial interests. In this scenario, commercial entities act as intermediaries between states, uniting them behind specific commercial projects in space.
However, commercial companies are unlikely to dictate future international cooperation in space. Under current international space law, any company operating in space does so as an extension of and under the jurisdiction of the government of its home country.
The dominance of states over business in space affairs has been clearly exemplified through the Ukraine crisis. As a result of state-imposed sanctions, many commercial space companies have stopped collaborating with Russia.
Given the current legal framework, it seems more likely that states, not commercial entities, will continue to dictate the rules in the space.
Space blocks for collaboration or conflict
I believe that, in the future, state formations, such as space blocs, will be the main means through which states will promote their national interests in space and on the ground. There are many benefits when nations come together and form space blocs. Space is tough, so it makes sense to share resources, manpower, and knowledge. However, such a system also carries inherent dangers.
History offers many examples showing that the more rigid alliances become, the more likely conflict is to occur. The growing rigidity of two alliances, the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, in the late 19th century is often cited as the key trigger for World War I.
A key lesson is that as long as the existing space blocs remain flexible and open to all, cooperation will flourish and the world can still avoid open conflict in space. Keeping the focus on scientific goals and exchanges between and within space blocs, while keeping political rivalries at bay, will help ensure the future of international cooperation in space.
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