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Russia and China Reaffirm Their Space Partnership

Recently announced plans for a Sino-Russo lunar nuclear plant signal Russia’s eastward realignment in space cooperation and hint at China’s renewed willingness to publicly cooperate with Russia.

China will soon be the only country with a continuous human presence in orbit through its Tiangong space station, as the ISS is set to be decommissioned around 2030. Image: Xinhua / Alamy

On 5 March 2024 – just days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine entered its third year – the head of Russia's State Space Cooperation Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, announced plans for Russia and China to build an automated nuclear power plant on the Moon between 2033 and 2035.

While this is not the first joint Sino-Russian venture into the final frontier – indeed, the plant’s stated purpose is to power the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) that Russia and China introduced in 2021 – its announcement further indicates that Moscow and Beijing intend to more brazenly cooperate in space.

To the Stars, with Nuclear

Borisov’s announcement came on the heels of rumours the month prior about Russia’s intention to put a nuclear weapon into orbit – a claim denied by Russian President Vladimir Putin but that nonetheless elicited blowback and concern from officials in Washington and further afield, given the potential catastrophic consequences and international legal ramifications (in particular, for the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) for the potential nuclear weaponisation of space.

Although the use of nuclear weapons in space would violate a flurry of international treaties, as well as physically degrade the environment it is used in, the use of nuclear power in space is not outside the bounds of international law. For example, like their contemporaries at NASA and the European Space AgencyRoscosmos and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) are funding research into nuclear power for space travel, which would drastically reduce transit times and the associated health risks of prolonged radiation exposure for astronauts.

As governments seek not only to go further, but to stay longer, in space, broader applications for nuclear technology are emerging. Challenges arise about the logistical challenges facing more permanent presences on the Moon – among them the consistent supply of energy to operate stations and bases for astronauts. Solar panels, which have sufficed for smaller-scale operations such as lunar rovers and are often the energy source of choice for space assets, would not be as efficient for larger and more permanent activities on the Moon, where the sun cycle means that ‘night’ lasts a little over two weeks on Earth.

By positioning itself with China, Russia is sending a further clear signal of stepping away from Western initiatives

It is no surprise, then, that space agencies are also considering nuclear power as an energy source for lunar bases. In 2022, China was reportedly considering a nuclear energy source for its base on the Moon’s south pole. Similarly, NASA is developing a Fission Surface Power Project for operation on the Moon that would be available to other space agency partners, and the UK Space Agency recently awarded Rolls-Royce research funding for an eventual lunar nuclear reactor. Although specific timelines vary, each lunar nuclear reactor plan – including the joint China–Russia one envisaged by Borisov – anticipates completion by the mid-2030s.

That completion deadline is, of course, subject to everything running smoothly – something which even Borisov seemed to acknowledge in his remarks, mentioning that the power plant would need to be constructed by robots and that Russia (and, presumably, China) have yet to develop the materials capable of withstanding the intense heat generated by the nuclear reactors.

Sino-Russo Ambitions in Space

As the proposition of a nuclear power plant on the Moon is not revelatory, neither is cooperation between Russia and China in space more broadly. The space partnership between Russia and China gained traction in 2014 and gradually grew over the next seven years, ultimately leading to the ILRS announcement in early March 2021 – potentially in response to the unveiling of NASA’s Artemis programme, which prioritises multinational collaboration and intends to send a crewed mission to the Moon by 2025, with a continuous presence by 2028. This project is a continuation of this wider partnership and leverages the comparative advantages of both Moscow and Beijing. Russia’s nuclear expertise surpasses that of China, while China – despite its shorter history as a spacefaring country – has more to offer in space, especially in terms of funding. In 2023, the CNSA allocated $14.15 billion for space programmes (a nearly 19% increase from $11.17 billion in 2022), while Russia only allocated $3.41 billion (a slight decrease from $3.42 billion in 2022).

Russia does not just need the extra money however – the status that is conferred on Russia by being one of the original space powers has more to do with its legacy than the reality of its current capabilities. The renewed sanctions, also specifically targeting the aerospace sector, in 2022 have added to Russia’s long list of problems in space. Simply put, if Moscow wants to continue to be a significant player in space, as it has been as a partner aboard the International Space Station (ISS), it needs to find a strong partner. This goes especially for costly and long-term projects such as lunar bases. By positioning itself with China, Russia is sending a further clear signal of stepping away from Western initiatives. The baseline requirement for this collaboration is a willingness to work alongside each other – something that China appeared to distance itself from immediately following the invasion of Ukraine.

China’s Course Change

Just under one year after the signing of the memorandum of understanding on the ILRS, Russia commenced its illegal invasion and occupation of Ukrainian sovereign territory, drawing ire, condemnation and swift retribution from the international community. In response, China appeared to quickly distance itself from its northern neighbour.

Space has never been an apolitical place and the hardened political lines that can be observed on Earth are also clearly visible there

At the September 2022 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris, China kept quiet about Russian involvement in its space projects, with a session run by the CNSA framing the ILRS as an extension of previous Chinese space exploration initiatives. Following the 2022 IAC, China continued to downplay or outright omit its space partnership with Russia.

If Borisov’s public announcement of his country’s ambitious collaboration with China in the next decade was made without the implicit approval of the Chinese government, it would likely not bode well for future cooperation. So, assuming that was not the case, his statements may indicate that China is increasingly committed to publicly associating with Russia.

Is Russia a Disruptive Business Partner for China?

Although China’s implicit consent to the announcement of a joint lunar nuclear plant with Russia is not a radical policy pivot – the Chinese government has yet to make a direct announcement about the initiative, and tensions between Russia and China on myriad other issues still remain – it indicates an increasingly likely future where interstellar cooperation is mired in polarised geopolitics. This is an especially pivotal moment, given the worries that emerged over Russian plans of a nuclear weapon in space. China, which has developed its space capabilities rapidly over the past few decades, could be set to lose a lot should such a weapon be deployed. In this case, China may be calculating to keep a disruptive Russia close.

At its core, this apparent renewal of earlier Sino-Soviet space cooperation reveals Russia’s intention to more closely align with China in space travel and exploration, and China’s willingness to embrace its role as an emerging centre of space pioneering. The soft power element of this development should not be overlooked. China will soon be the only country with a continuous human presence in orbit through its Tiangong space stationas the ISS – a collaboration between several partners, including the US and Russia – is set to be decommissioned around 2030.

If recent ramifications of great power competition between Russia and China and the West – such as concerns about a looming renewal of the nuclear arms race – are any indication of the state of the geopolitical arena, the polarisation of space could have similar destructive consequences. Space has never been an apolitical place and the hardened political lines that can be observed on Earth are also clearly visible there – if not more obviously so. As such, NASA is legally barred from spending public funds on cooperation with China – making a collaboration between the two, as seen with Roscosmos, impossible at this point. After Russia’s previously problematic statements about the future of the ISS, it is now clearly positioning itself with emerged space power China. What remains to be seen is how Russia acts within this relationship and if, more broadly, the two countries can continue their uneasy business partnership.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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