China-Russia alliance in space stumbles in bid to surpass the US

INTERNATIONAL DESK: China’s state-run media frequently touts the country’s major achievements and grand ambitions in outer space, including its planned research outpost on the moon.

But there’s one thing it tends not to mention: Russia, its closest partner in space.

When Beijing and Moscow announced plans in 2021 for a joint lunar project, it looked like a powerful alliance, matching China’s technological prowess with deep Russian experience in space, dating back to the original moon race. Yet even before Russia’s war in Ukraine, there were doubts about what Moscow could offer Beijing.

“Russia is still one of the biggest players in space, but if you look at the trajectory of that program, it’s really been declining in terms of budget, personnel and capabilities,” said Mariel Borowitz, a space policy expert and associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, China has downplayed talk of a Beijing-Moscow space axis, even while its diplomats say relations between the two nations are solid. Chinese representatives at September’s International Astronautical Congress in Paris didn’t talk about Russia when discussing the lunar project, and Russia is often left out of Chinese media reports about Beijing’s space program.

“They are de-emphasizing Russia’s role,” said Borowitz.

A possible visit by Yury Borisov, head of Russia’s space program, to China as soon as this week is unlikely to change that trajectory. Borisov told Russian media in December that the nations had a new space agreement — a statement Chinese authorities haven’t confirmed — but Beijing has shown it can achieve many of its goals, including an orbiting space station, on its own.

China’s space program “has mostly caught up with, if not surpassed, Russia,” said He Qisong, a professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. “For cooperation, such as the one in the joint lunar research station, the symbolism is greater than the practical value.”

Where Beijing is struggling is in pushing back against U.S. dominance.

China has sought to use its space program as a soft-power tool to compete with the U.S., one reason Beijing and Moscow’s planned International Lunar Research Station was supposed to be open to other countries. But while nearly two dozen countries have signed up for the Washington-backed Artemis Accords, a plan to set the rules for activities in space, no country has joined China and Russia for the ILRS.

Among the nations signing up for the Artemis Accords in recent months are Nigeria and Rwanda — the first African countries to do so. Their move is a blow to China’s efforts to sew up diplomatic support from African countries.

Another hit came in January, when the head of the European Space Agency said the 22-member group has no plans for its astronauts to travel to China’s recently completed space station, backing away from an agreement signed in 2015. Cooperation continues, however, on a satellite to study solar winds.

“There’s this competing narrative between China and the U.S., and at the moment the U.S. has a lot more willing partners than China has,” said Mark Hilborne, a lecturer in the Defence Studies department of King’s College London.

Officials at the Chinese and Russian space agencies didn’t respond to requests for comment.

There’s little doubt about how Russia’s space program has been hit by the war in Ukraine. The conflict cost the space agency Roscosmos its partnership with the European Space Agency, which in April called off cooperation on several lunar missions and suspended a project to send a spacecraft to Mars.

Russia also lost business from OneWeb Ltd. — backed by the U.K. government, Indian telecom group Bharti and Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. — after the London-based satellite company last March suspended all launches from a Russian-controlled launchpad.

For all its problems, Russia’s space program isn’t dead. Roscosmos last week announced plans to send a probe to the moon in July. And Russian and American astronauts continue to work and live together on the International Space Station, one of the last areas of cooperation between the two countries. But Russia has said it will quit the ISS after 2024, and the station is set to be retired at the end of the decade.

The isolation of the Russian space program highlights the need for China to find more partners at a time when countries are preparing for a new era of commercial space activity. If China’s only space ally is Russia, Beijing may be hard-pressed to resist U.S. efforts to set the rules for the emerging space economy.

China has had some success courting other would-be partners. During a trip to Saudi Arabia in December, President Xi Jinping welcomed having astronauts from the kingdom and other Gulf nations travel to China’s space station. The space agencies of China and the United Arab Emirates will work on joint projects, including a lunar rover, the two sides announced in September.

In addition, a company based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in January signed a preliminary agreement with the government of Djibouti to build a spaceport in the East African country that will have seven satellite launch pads and three rocket testing pads.

Even a weaker Russian space program could still provide benefits to China. For instance, the two countries have agreed to cooperate on space-based sensors for satellites to detect ballistic and hypersonic missiles, said Hilborne, of King’s College.

Russia is probably further ahead in how to use and operationalize the technology, he said, adding that China’s surveillance operations in space are far more important to Beijing than spy balloons like the one shot down by the U.S. Air Force on Feb. 4.

Borisov, who took over at Roscosmos last year, has vowed to revive Russia’s program.

Russia produces only about 15 satellites a year, he told the Russian newspaper Vedomosti in December, well behind the US and China. Roscosmos will borrow as much as 50 billion rubles ($660 million) through bond sales, according to Borisov, with the money used to fund two plants to produce satellites.

But even with Chinese help, Russia’s ability to support its space program, particularly with no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, will remain in doubt. And like its other areas of cooperation with China — from trade to technology — Russia is increasingly a junior partner.

“The Russians cannot sustain their own lunar program,” said Florian Vidal, a research fellow at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, who’s written about Russia’s space program. “China is the leader.” (Bloomberg News)

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