- SVETLA BEN-ITZHAK
Same in times of conflict on the ground, space has always been an arena of collaboration between nations. But trends over the past decade suggest the nature of space cooperation is changing, and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted those changes.
I am a specialist in international relations which studies power distributions in space – who the main players are, what capabilities they possess and with whom they decide to cooperate. Some researchers predict a future in which single states follow different levels of dominancewhile others foresee a scenario in which business entities bring nations together.
The International Space Station is the quintessential example of international collaboration in space. PICTURE: NASA via WikimediaCommons
“Over the past five years, several new space blocks have emerged with different levels of space capabilities. These include the African Space Agency, with 55 member states; the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, with seven Member States; and the Arab Space Coordination Group, with 12 Member States from the Middle East.”
But I believe the future may be different. In recent years, groups of nations with similar strategic interests on Earth have come together to promote 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 the tensions on the ground, the two acted cautiously to avoid provoking seizures and even worked on several projects in the space.
Like more countries have developed their own space agencies, several international collaborative groups have emerged. These include the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairsthe United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the Advisory Committee for Spatial Data Systems.
These multinational enterprises were primarily focused on scientific collaboration and data exchange.
The emergence of spatial blocks
The European Space Agency, which today has 22 nations, could be considered among the first space blocks. But a more pronounced shift towards this type of power structure can be observed after the end of the Cold War. Countries that shared interests on the ground began coming together to pursue specific mission objectives in space, forming space blocs.
Over the past five years, several new space blocks have emerged with varying levels of space capabilities. These include the African Space Agency, with 55 Member States; the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, with seven Member States; and the Arab Space Coordination Groupwith 12 Middle Eastern Member States.
These groups allow nations to work closely with others in their blocks, but the blocks also compete with each other. Two recent space blocks – the Accords of Artemis and the Sino-Russian Moon Accord – are an example of such competition.
Race to the moon
the Accords of Artemis were launched in October 2020. They are led by the United States and currently include 18 member countries. The group’s goal is to get people back to the Moon by 2025 and establish a guiding 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 support lunar space station called Gateway.
Similarly, in 2019, Russia and China agreed to collaborate on a mission to send people at the south pole of the Moon by 2026. This joint Sino-Russian mission also aims to eventually 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 been carried over to space.
Any nation can join the Artemis Accords. But Russia and China – along with a number of their allies on Earth – have not done so because some see the deals as an effort to expand the US-dominated international order to outer space.
Similarly, Russia and China plan to open their future lunar research station to all interested parties, but no Artemis countries showed interest. The European Space Agency has even interrupted several joint projects it had planned with Russia and is instead expanding its partnerships with the United States and Japan.
The impact of space blocks on the ground
In addition to seeking power in space, countries also use spatial blocks to strengthen their spheres of influence on the ground.
Although its general objective is the development and launch of satellites, the organization major 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, just like the case of iran.
The role of private space companies
There has been a lot growth of business activities in space in the last decade. As a result, some researchers see a future of space cooperation defined by shared business interests. In this scenario, commercial entities act as intermediaries between states, uniting them behind specific commercial projects in space.
However, business enterprises are unlikely to dictate future international cooperation in space. According to current international space law, any company that operates in space does so in the extension of – and under the jurisdiction of – the government of his country of origin.
The dominance of states over corporations in space affairs was clearly illustrated by the Ukrainian crisis. As a result of state sanctions, many commercial space companies have stopped collaborating with Russia.
Given the current legal framework, it seems very likely that states – not commercial entities – will continue to dictate the rules in space.
Spatial blocks of collaboration or conflict
I believe that in the future, state formations – such as space blocs – will be the primary means by which states advance their national interests in space and on the ground. There are many benefits when nations come together and form spatial blocks. Space is difficult, so pooling resources, manpower and know-how makes sense. However, such a system also has inherent dangers.
History offers many examples showing that the more rigid alliances become, most likely conflict must ensue. The increasing rigidity of two alliances – the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance – at the end of the 19th century is often cited as the key trigger of the First World War.
A key lesson is that as long as existing space blocs remain flexible and open to all, cooperation will flourish and the world can still avoid open conflict in space. Maintaining a focus on scientific goals and exchanges between and within space blocs – while keeping political rivalries at bay – will help secure the future of international cooperation in space.