As it has intensified in recent years, great power competition has not been confined to the limits of our planet. Many matters of space have been left unaddressed by international law, omissions that space powers have strived to correct to their own advantage. In 1979, the Moon Treaty declared the moon and its natural resources to be the “common heritage of mankind.” But in the years that followed, only eighteen countries—none of them G7 countries or permanent members of the UN Security Council—became party to the treaty.

The United States was the first country to attempt to develop its own legal framework for lunar exploration, its hand forced by the rapid development of commercial spaceflight and a global surge in interest in space exploration. In 2019, the United States announced its Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972. The following year, NASA signed the Artemis Accords with its counterparts in Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the UAE, and the UK, forming a group whose ranks have since been swollen by the space agencies of Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, South Korea, and Ukraine.

The hope of the United States is that more and more countries will join as signatories, even as it warns that the Artemis program is off-limits to states that do not comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Russia, however, has stayed away from the accords, despite its extensive cooperation with the United States in space, including as part of the International Space Station program.

In 2020, Moscow similarly declined to participate in the U.S.-led construction of the Lunar Gateway, a space station that will orbit the moon. Justifying this decision, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin stated that Russia’s space agency would only participate in the project if put on an equal footing with NASA—a reflection of the growing differences between Russia and the United States.

Unlike Russia, China is barred from participating in joint projects with the United States in space by the Wolf Amendment, a 2011 measure prohibiting NASA from cooperating with China without special approval from Congress. Not that Beijing seems interested in working with Washington in this area, judging by Chinese news outlets’ criticism of the Artemis Accords as a step toward the division of space into enclosures.

More important, China has its own plans for the moon, to which Russia has signed on. This spring, Roscosmos and its Chinese counterpart, the China National Space Administration, signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation relating to the establishment of the International Lunar Research Station, a planned moon base that is a joint project of the two space agencies.

The integration of the Russian and Chinese lunar programs has been several years in the making. In 2019, the two countries’ space agencies signed a document regarding coordination between the lunar exploration missions Luna-Resurs-1 and Chang’e 7 (嫦娥七号). That same year, Russia and China signed a cooperation agreement in relation to the establishment of a joint lunar and deep-space exploration data center. Today, an intergovernmental agreement on lunar cooperation is in the works.

According to the International Lunar Research Station project’s road map, the moon base will be created in three stages. The first, which runs from 2021 to 2025, sees three Russian and three Chinese missions launched to the moon. The actual construction of the International Lunar Research Station is slated for 2026–2035, during which time another two missions—one per country—will be launched. The moon base will then become operational, albeit without any human involvement.

Far from a project started from scratch, the International Lunar Research Station represents the coupling of the two countries’ lunar programs. All the Russian spacecraft mentioned in the road map, from Luna-25 to Luna-28, have long been in development, while China’s Chang’e 4 (嫦娥四号)—the first Chinese mission named in the presentation—ended back in 2019, when the spacecraft successfully landed on the far side of the moon. There is no dedicated funding for the project, in the first stage anyway.

The rhetoric surrounding the International Lunar Research Station project may give the impression that China is becoming Russia’s main partner in space exploration. But this is not so.

First, Russia and China have taken only the first steps toward the moon base’s establishment. Integrating two countries’ lunar programs is fairly difficult, with much of what Russia has merely planned already successfully implemented by China. For example, whereas Luna-28 will not return to Earth with soil samples from the south pole of the moon until after 2025, China retrieved about two kilograms of regolith in 2020. China is only the third country after the USSR and the United States to complete such a mission and the first to do so in the past forty-five years.

Projects still in development also give little cause for optimism. This past February, Russia halted work on its Yenisei super heavy lift launch vehicle—and not for the first time. Later, in September, news outlets reported that the project may have been cancelled altogether, although Rogozin denied that claim, maintaining that funding had simply been redirected for a time. In any case, Yenisei’s planned 2028 launch remains in doubt, all while China’s Changzheng 9 (长征九号火箭) nears its planned 2030 test launch.

Second, the two countries’ space programs are out of proportion. Accurate data on China’s (civil) space spending is not publicly available, but the most conservative estimate is about $8.9 billion as of 2020, which would make China’s space program second only to that of the United States in terms of budget. By contrast, in 2020, Russia allocated about $2.7 billion, or 198.5 billion rubles, to its space program.

Moscow has also been outpaced by Beijing in terms of successful launches. In 2020 the former conducted seventeen and the latter thirty-five, while in 2021 Russia had pulled off twenty-three and China forty-nine as of December 21.

Russia and China have been regularly approving space cooperation programs since 2001, giving rise to an impressive body of agreements in this area. Yet the two countries’ cooperation in space has remained fragmented, as evidenced by the continuing dearth of joint projects.

Roscosmos’s website does not even have a page dedicated to Sino-Russian cooperation, even as it mentions joint projects with smaller countries like Nicaragua and South Africa and Western rivals such as the United States and the EU. This, even though it is with China, not International Space Station partners, that Russia has decided to build a moon base.

Moreover, the two countries’ cooperation in knowledge industries and mechanical engineering has yet to produce any success stories. Talks regarding the joint construction of the CR929, a wide-body long-haul aircraft, went on for almost a decade and were marked by disagreements. In September, Chinese news outlets reported that the first unit had gone into production—reports that state-owned enterprises have yet to confirm or deny. Russia and China took even longer to discuss building a heavy helicopter, a project in which Russia’s role was ultimately limited to supplying individual components.

It should be noted that the International Lunar Research Station project is not exclusively Sino-Russian. As late as 2019, Russia and China were still discussing the idea of building a joint moon base with the European Space Agency.

Today, the project remains “open to all international partners interested in cooperation,” and other countries and international organizations are encouraged to contribute to “any aspect of the mission in every stage.” The road map refers to “potential missions by other partners”; negotiations with Thailand, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia are ongoing; and the involvement of private companies has not been ruled out.

In theory, the International Lunar Research Station project could become a counterweight to the Artemis Accords. Certainly, China plans to promote it as an alternative for other countries interested in space exploration. For Russia, the project is an opportunity to make its space industry more dynamic and diversify its contacts in this area, especially as room for cooperation with the United States continues to shrink.

Yet the project’s biggest problem is that it will not attract other countries until Russia and China demonstrate that it will endure.

The reality is that although Russia and China have yet to bring large, technically complex projects to fruition because of division-of-labor disagreements, both countries stand to gain from this particular project. No partner offers Russia better prospects than China, while no partner offers China more experience when it comes to manned flights and space nuclear power plants than Russia. As the two countries work together, however, Moscow will need to ensure one thing above all else: that the project does not stall once China has taken everything it needs from Russia.

This publication is part of a project carried out with the support of the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

  • Natalia Azarova