Even in times of conflict on the ground, space has historically been an arena of collaboration between nations. But trends over the past decade suggest that the nature of cooperation in space is changing, and the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted those changes.
I am an international relations scholar who studies the distributions of power in space – who are the main actors, what capabilities they have and with whom they decide to cooperate. Some scholars envision a future in which single states will pursue multiple levels of dominance, while others envision a scenario in which commercial entities unite nations.
But I believe that the future may be different. In recent years, groups of nations with similar strategic interests on Earth have banded together to advance their interests in space, forming what I call “space blocs.”
From state-led space efforts to collaboration
The US and Soviet Union dominated space activities during the Cold War. Despite tensions on the ground, both acted carefully to avoid causing crises and even cooperated on various projects in space.
As more countries developed their own space agencies, several international collaborative groups emerged. These include the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and the Advisory Committee on Spatial Data Systems.
In 1975, 10 European nations founded the European Space Agency. In 1998, the US and Russia joined forces to build the International Space Station, which is now supported by 15 countries.
These multinational ventures were primarily focused on scientific collaboration and data exchange.
The emergence of space blocks
The European Space Agency, which now includes 22 nations, can be considered one of the first space blocs. But a more pronounced shift towards this kind of power structure can be seen after the end of the Cold War. Countries that shared interests on land began to band together to pursue specific mission objectives in space, forming space blocs.
In the last five years, several new space blocks have emerged with various 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.
These groups allow nations to collaborate closely with others in their blocs, but blocs also compete with each other. Two recent space blocs – the Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian Lunar Agreement – are an example of this competition.
race to the moon
The Artemis Accords were launched in October 2020. They are led by the US and currently include 18 member countries. The group’s goal is to return people to the Moon by 2025 and establish a governance structure to explore and mine on the Moon, Mars and beyond. The mission aims to build a research station at the Moon’s south pole with a supporting lunar space station called Gateway.
Similarly, in 2019, Russia and China agreed to collaborate on a mission to send people to the Moon’s south pole by 2026. This Sino-Russian joint mission also aims to build a lunar base and place a space station in lunar orbit.
The fact that these blocks did not collaborate to carry out similar missions on the Moon indicates that strategic interests and rivalries on land were transposed to space.
Any nation can join the Artemis Accords. But Russia and China — along with several of their allies on Earth — have not done so because some perceive the agreements as an effort to expand the US-dominated international order into outer space.
Likewise, Russia and China plan to open their future lunar research station to all interested parties, but no Artemis country has expressed an interest. The European Space Agency has even discontinued several joint projects it had planned with Russia and is instead expanding its partnerships with the US and Japan.
The impact of space blocks on the ground
In addition to seeking power in space, countries are also using space blocks to strengthen their spheres of influence on the ground.
One example is the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, which was formed in 2005. Led by China, it includes Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey.
While its broad objective is the development and launch of satellites, the organization’s main objective is to expand and normalize the use of the Chinese BeiDou navigation system – the Chinese version of GPS. Countries that use the system can become dependent on China, as is the case with Iran.
The role of private space companies
There has been tremendous growth in commercial activities in space over the past decade. As a result, some scholars see a future of space cooperation defined by shared commercial interests. In this scenario, commercial entities act as intermediaries between states, uniting them behind specific commercial projects in space.
However, commercial companies are unlikely to dictate future international cooperation in space. Under current international space law, any company operating in space does so as an extension of – and under the jurisdiction of – the government of its home country.
The dominance of states over companies in space affairs was clearly exemplified by the crisis in Ukraine. As a result of state-imposed sanctions, many commercial space companies have stopped collaborating with Russia.
Given the current legal framework, it seems more likely that states – not commercial entities – will continue to dictate the rules in space.
Space blocks for collaboration or conflict
I believe that going forward, state formations – such as space blocs – will serve as the primary means through which states advance their national interests in space and on the ground. There are many benefits when nations come together and form space blocks. Space is tough, so pooling resources, manpower, and know-how makes sense. However, such a system also comes with inherent dangers.
History offers many examples that show that the tighter alliances become, the more likely conflict is. The increasing rigidity of two alliances – the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance – in the late 19th century is often cited as the main trigger of the First World War.
A key lesson from this is that as long as existing space blocks remain flexible and open to all, cooperation will flourish and the world can still avoid open conflict in space. Keeping the focus on scientific goals and exchanges between and within space blocs – keeping political rivalries in check – will help secure the future of international cooperation in space.
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