Shortly after Russia was sanctioned for invading Ukraine in late February, Russia’s state-run space agency, Roscosmos, announced that it was officially suspending the U.S. from an upcoming Venus exploration mission. Weeks later, on March 17, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the suspension of a joint mission to Mars with Roscosmos, and further said that it would not be taking part in upcoming Roscosmos missions to the moon.
These decisions have naturally generated concern across the space industry and political landscape. For decades, Russian and Western countries have collaborated in space despite flare-ups in tensions on Earth. In 1975, the U.S. Apollo capsule linked up with the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft briefly as a symbol of cooperation amid the Cold War. In 1995, the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir.
And in 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) was launched, featuring a Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and a United States Orbital Segment (USOS), the latter being operated by NASA, the ESA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Sustained cooperation on the ISS has been a notable exception to the growing tensions between Russia and the Western states over the last decade. But in April, Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, declared that Russia would end cooperation on the ISS, as well as other joint projects, if sanctions against Russia were not lifted. While such threats have been issued before, notably after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the heightened confrontation between Russia and the West since the start of the Ukrainian invasion has reinforced this possibility.
NASA, meanwhile, chose to downplay Rogozin’s claims and stated that it will continue to operate the ISS until at least 2030. But Roscosmos has previously stated that it intends to develop its own space station by 2025, and has also revealed plans for a potential manned mission to the moon. Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system, which achieved global coverage in 2011, has also become a viable rival to the United States’ GPS system. These developments show the Kremlin’s growing commitment to pursuing its own interests in space without partnering with Western states.
In comparison, Roscosmos has increased its collaboration with the China National Space Administration (CNSA), particularly after the first wave of Western sanctions in 2014. In 2021, China and Russia announced plans to build a lunar research station, a direct rival to NASA’s Gateway project, which will be coordinated with the space agencies from Europe, Japan, and Canada.
China has already created its own space station, the Tiangong Space Station, which was launched in 2021. While far smaller than the ISS, China’s space agency has six more launches planned this year to complete the installation. China also sent a rover to the far side of the moon in 2019, as well as to Mars in 2021, and has announced plans for its own manned moon mission this decade.
While the space programs of some countries in the Global South, such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Iran, are certainly less impressive, their development demonstrates the growing accessibility to space, which has long been dominated by Russia, China, and Western states. More than 70 countries now have space agencies, while 14 are capable of orbital launch.
For these countries, success in space in recent years has often come from collaborating with existing space powers. In 2005, Iran’s first satellite was built and launched in Russia, while in 2008, China, Iran, and Thailand launched a joint research satellite on a Chinese rocket. Technology sharing, domestic innovation, and decreasing costs have also allowed more countries to compete in space. India made history in 2013 after it sent its own orbiter to Mars, notably on a smaller budget than the space movie “Gravity,” which came out the same year.
The growing number of countries active in Earth’s orbit and beyond have also revitalized fears of the possibility of the militarization of space. So far, only Russia, China, the U.S., and India have successfully demonstrated anti-satellite weapons. Other countries, however, including Iran and Israel, are believed to either be developing or already have similar capabilities.
Of course, Western countries remain far ahead technologically than any other state or group of states. NASA’s Artemis 1 mission, for example, aims to place humans on the moon again by 2025, while three NASA rovers are currently active on Mars. NASA’s unmanned X-37B program—which began in 1999, was transferred to the U.S. military in 2004, and is now being run by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office—has so far conducted four missions, while collaborative projects with the ESA have further underlined Western dominance in space.
But a growing phenomenon in space is the role of private companies. They have been involved in many of NASA’s and the ESA’s high-profile projects, including Boeing’s involvement in the X-37B project. Largely based in the U.S. and the UK, these companies have helped reduce costs and have increased opportunities for government space agencies, and they will be essential for exploiting the vast resources on the moon, asteroids, and other celestial bodies.
Though hundreds of space-related companies exist, a handful have stood out as pioneers of the modern space age. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson respectively, both made history in 2021 after conducting their own manned space flights. Blue Origin, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and other corporations have also signed contracts to create private space stations in the future.
The most notable private company operating in space, however, is SpaceX, which is owned by entrepreneur Elon Musk. In recent years, the company has helped reduce the United States’ dependency on Russian Soyuz rockets to bring astronauts and deliveries to the ISS following the termination of the NASA program as a consequence of the Ukraine war.
SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites into space, with plans to launch more than 12,000 by 2026. Most will form part of the Starlink project that aims to provide internet access to populations around the world.
Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted at Elon Musk in February to use the Starlink project to bring internet to Ukraine after some services were disrupted by the Russian invasion. Within days, Starlink was active across the country, and in early May, Ukrainian officials stated that 150,000 Ukrainians were using the service daily.
The use of Starlink satellites was no doubt seen in Moscow as a direct challenge to the Kremlin. While Russia is currently unlikely to attack the network, it has raised questions as to how future confrontations between private companies and countries in space might play out. The growing use of private military companies on Earth by both states and the private sector could inspire similar moves to protect government and private assets in space.
The growing profile of private space-related companies threatens to upend the rules of regulations regarding space, most of which were written decades ago. This includes the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which through Article VI established that countries have the legal authority to regulate space and not international bodies, with private companies not yet having started space exploration when the treaty was finalized. The Artemis Accords, a modern U.S.-sponsored agreement to regulate space created in 2020, has so far only been signed by 16 countries.
Nonetheless, the increasingly competitive space industry has already demonstrated that even smaller countries can play a large role in it. Overseeing the development of technologies and tempering the weaponization of space, by both countries and companies, should become a priority globally to help ensure that growing competition in space does not lead to avoidable and destructive consequences on Earth.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.
Stories Chosen For You
The president of San Francisco's San Mateo County Harbor District deleted her Twitter account after comparing pro-housing activists to Nazis, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
“Class war news of the day: Today some Nazis, I mean YIMBYs, are casing St. Francis Woods in SF because 100 years ago there were restrictive covenants,” Nancy Reyering wrote in the now-deleted tweet.
“What’s next —” the tweet continued, “Molotov cocktails?”
Reyering drew condemnation from from State Democratic Sen. Josh Becker, who said he had family members die in the Holocaust.
“As a Jew with relatives killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, I beseech all to remember the 6 million Jews lost,” Becker tweeted on Sunday. “I renounce San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Nancy Reyering’s using that term to describe housing advocates & hope she will only us it when referring to actual Nazis.”
According to the Chronicle, the controversy stems from a fight over the new state law SB9, which allows property owners to divide their lots in half and build two units on each portion.
"Bay Area suburbs have tried a variety of creative strategies to circumvent the law, including a novel tactic that officials in the affluent Peninsula town of Woodside deployed in February, claiming all land parcels had to be preserved as mountain lion habitat," the Chronicle reports. "St. Francis Wood pursued a different route, petitioning for a historic designation that would allow it to keep residential lots in tact."
Texas GOP lawmakers ask Supreme Court for emergency shield from disclosing redistricting map 'motives'
Three Texas Republican legislators have filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking that they be shielded from having to explain their motives for creating a discriminatory redistricting map.
The petition states that "Representatives Ryan Guillen, Brooks Landgraf, and John Lujan" were "involuntarily subpoenaed" in a case brought by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and other groups. The plaintiffs argue that the state's proposed redistricting maps are discriminatory.
According to the Texas Tribune, the new map would reduce the number of Black and Latino congressional districts.
"People of color accounted for 95% of the state's growth over the last decade, but in the new map there's one less Hispanic majority district and zero districts with a Black majority," the paper noted.
In their emergency petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Texas lawmakers argue that they do not have to explain their motives because of legislative privilege.
"[T]he probative value of any one legislator’s motivations or impressions is weak at best, while the affront to federalism and comity is at its zenith," the petition states.
According to Democracy Docket, depositions are set to begin on Tuesday and a ruling would be expected "soon" after that.
As the West spends billions in aid to support Ukraine’s offensive against Russia, concerns are mounting over the looming possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. President Joe Biden said Monday that the United States would intervene militarily if the self-governing island came under attack by the mainland. But is Beijing ready to mount a full-scale takeover of Taiwan – and succeed?
Biden’s unequivocal remark about Taiwan came at a news conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during a visit to Tokyo, as the president responded to a question regarding whether, contrary to his approach to Ukraine, he would use military force to defend Taiwan.
“Yes … that’s the commitment we made,” Biden responded. “The idea that [Taiwan] could be taken by force … would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”
The president’s clear answer departed from the traditional stance of strategic ambiguity: a decades-old US policy of deliberate vagueness regarding the defense of Taiwan in case of Chinese invasion. But as Taiwan has reported a troubling increase in provocative military activity from Beijing, with spikes in Chinese military aircraft overflights in the island’s air defense identification zone, top US and EU officials have openly voiced their support for the democratic island, whose plight has also drawn comparisons to Ukraine.
The White House hurriedly walked back Biden’s statements, denying that the president’s remarks represented any change in policy – but not before they had provoked the ire of Beijing, whose foreign ministry expressed “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” within hours.
"Biden wants to send a strong message of deterrence to Beijing," says Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia program at Institut Montaigne. "He wanted to show Beijing that while the US has refused to intervene directly in the war in Ukraine, it is determined to help Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion."
All this rhetoric begs the question: Just how feasible is a Chinese invasion of Taiwan at this point?
Invading Taiwan would be “extremely difficult for Beijing”
China’s defence budget, currently at $229 billion, has allowed it to boost research and development into new weapons systems, carriers and military exercises – with an emphasis on strengthening its navy. Currently, the country has considerable military capabilities that would allow it to intervene in and around Taiwan, explains Antoine Bondaz, director of the Taiwan program at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
"China's military spending has increased sevenfold over the past twenty years – and these efforts will continue. Today, there are an estimated 10,000 Chinese marines. It is projected that there will be 100,000 by 2027.”
In the short term, these growing resources are still too limited to envision a total invasion and control of Taiwan, the researcher says. "But if Beijing continues at this rate, it will have the resources necessary in a couple of years.”
Although China may far surpass Taiwan in its military arsenal and manpower, in terms of strategy, such an invasion would remain “extremely difficult for Beijing”, says Duchâtel.
“The Taiwanese, without even taking into account the US intervention, have a strong response capability, and could generate heavy losses for Beijing in case of an amphibious or airborne landing attempt."
Indeed, Taiwan has also boosted its defence spending, allocating in January an extra $8.6 billion on top of a record annual defense budget, dedicated to buying weapons like long-range precision weapons and warships.
Both sides learning lessons from Ukraine war
The island’s defense ministry has also been following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine closely, and has said that it will incorporate lessons from the war into its military exercises. Taiwanese officials and analysts have said that Ukraine’s resistance against the much larger Russian army also brings to mind the importance of asymmetric warfare and reservists.
Indeed, the Chinese are also gleaning insights from the conflict in Ukraine, causing them to reassess their hopes for a quick “lightning war” operation by which “reunification” by force would be possible after a few days, says Duchâtel.
"The Chinese saw the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg. This therefore forces them to rethink their military options vis-a-vis Taiwan and removes the risk of a short-term operation. We also do not know whether Chinese forces would be able to hold Taiwan in the event of an invasion”.
Towards an escalation in Taiwan-China relations?
Though an imminent, short-term Chinese invasion of Taiwan seems unlikely, “the status quo could shift at any given moment”, says Duchâtel.
The researcher points to two key events as being pivotal to the evolution of Taiwan-China relations: the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in the second half of 2022, and Taiwan’s parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2024.
Could tensions escalate during this period? "Currently, Taiwan, under the presidency of Tsai Ing-wen, takes a very cautious approach towards Beijing," explains Duchâtel. "But this reaffirmed American protection, coupled with China’s declining image on the international stage, could lead Taiwan to take greater political risks. Today, we don't seem to be moving in that direction. But it is a possibility”.
‘The international community must play a dissuasive role’
China’s objective to conquer Taiwan has always been clear, says Bondaz. As the mainland amasses military might, the threat to Taiwan grows – and if Beijing doesn’t have the means to launch a successful attack now, it will in a couple of years, by 2025 according to some estimates.
The researcher thus insists on the role the international community must play to dissuade China from using force. “They have to make Beijing understand that the cost, in human, military and geopolitical terms, is prohibitive.”
Biden’s remarks serve as a warning more pointed than any the US has issued to China over Taiwan in decades. “He underscored the difference between Ukraine and Taiwan” says Duchâtel. How this deterrence will play out concretely as the fraught relationship between Taiwan and China evolves remains to be seen.