A Chinese robot trundles about in the dust. It collects rock samples, measures chemical compounds, and observes craters never before seen by humankind. It’s beyond the reach of U.S. sensors. It’s beyond the rule of international laws and norms. It’s on a mission.
It’s on the dark side of the moon.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been operating Yutu-2 on the far side of Luna since 2019. Ostensibly part of the CCP’s lunar exploration program, rovers such as Yutu-2 are preparing the way for the construction of a new robotic research base on the moon. That base, in turn, will prepare the way for a crewed moon landing and a new lunar base managed jointly by China and Russia.
The exploration phase of this process, of which Yutu-2 is a part, is planned to extend through 2025 with six more missions conducted by China and Russia. Following that, construction on the base is expected to last until at least 2035, with full operational capacity being achieved by 2036.
The ambition piques the interest of scientists, ever hungry for new knowledge about Earth’s only moon. The secrecy shrouding the project, however, unnerves strategists who don’t see this little rover as merely one small step for mankind, but as one giant leap for Chinese military capabilities.
Indeed, some experts believe that Yutu-2’s lunar rock collection isn’t only a continuation of Sino–U.S. competition, but might actually provide the keys to victory in a future war.
Space Is a Warfighting Domain
Michael Listner is an attorney of a very peculiar sort. He specializes in space policy and has, for some years, led the publication of “The Précis,” a legal newsletter that examines the basis of space law and its ramifications for international policy in every field from business to national security.
He says the CCP is extending its “Three Warfares” strategy into space. This vast new frontier will be central to the regime’s campaigns of media aggrandizement, the subject of psychological warfare, and, vitally, the centerpiece of new legal battles that will reshape the international order as China seeks to claim the United States’ global hegemon status for its own.
The strategy, he said, is designed to undermine and perhaps defeat the enemy without firing a shot.
“Space is a warfighting domain,” Listner said. “It’s going to be part of the struggle and it’s going to be part of a future conflict.”
“They are fighting on all these fronts right now,” Listner added of the CCP’s three warfares strategy in space. “In fact, I really look at it as preparing the battlefield.”
That effort to shape the battlefield, central to any military, is particularly meaningful to Chinese military strategists who, since at least the fifth century B.C., have studied the writings of the eminent philosopher of war Sun Tzu, who argued that preparing the battlefield was the means of mastering the enemy.
As such, it’s feared that the Chinese regime will effectively ensure that should conflict break out, it has the strategic advantage by preparing a favorable legal landscape, positioning assets in orbit, and building alliances in its space operations.
The reason for the continuation of this effort on the moon is simple enough: America can’t work without space.
“The American dependence and reliance on space is almost absolute,” said Paul Crespo, president of the Center for American Defense Studies.
“From communications to banking to air and ground travel and GPS, our economy, society, and military cannot survive without U.S. space dominance.”
Crespo, a Marine veteran who served in the Defense Intelligence Agency, has spent years examining the CCP’s malign influence abroad and its efforts to degrade and undermine its adversaries through dual-use technologies and legal warfare.
Both Crespo and Listner fear that the moon will be China’s next “nine-dash line,” and that it will be used to bend the rule of law to the CCP’s advantage, just as it has in the South China Sea.
The Chinese regime claims about 85 percent of the disputed South China Sea demarcated by its nine-dash line, a claim that was rejected by a 2016 international tribunal. Several other countries also lay claim to parts of the waterway.
Despite the ruling, Beijing has built military outposts on artificial islands and reefs in the region, and deployed coast guard ships and Chinese fishing boats to intimidate foreign vessels, block access to waterways, and seize shoals and reefs.
Experts fear the CCP will use its moon and space infrastructure to similarly box out competition and control the happenings of the region, in violation of international laws and norms.
“The CCP has proven it has no respect for international law or norms, and is willing to bully, threaten, coerce and push its way into any place it deems vital to its strategic goals,” Crespo said.
“That’s crystal clear with its illegal expansion into, and claims on, most of the South China Sea.”
“This certainly will be even more true for China in space where the norms are far less established and codified.”
The United States’ response to CCP space adventurism has been mixed.
During the administration of President Donald Trump, the nation took a hardline stance and sought to outrace the CCP to the moon. Indeed, the Artemis Accords were initially designed to guide those nations that were to partake in the Artemis Program, a U.S.-led effort to establish a base on the moon.
Trump’s Space Policy Directive-1, likewise, sought to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”
To accommodate these ambitions, NASA attempted to step up its original goal of establishing a moon presence from 2028 to 2024. That date was quickly pushed back to 2025, however. Since then, NASA has changed course again, and slated 2025 as the earliest date for a U.S. flight around the moon, but which won’t land on the moon.
A Long March 5B rocket lifts off from the Wenchang launch site on China’s Hainan island on May 5, 2020. Another variant of the Long March rocket was used to get China’s hypersonic missile into orbit in July. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Usurping the Advantage
The moon race has the potential to revolutionize international relations more than any other facet of Sino–American competition. When it comes to dictating what the law is beyond the earth’s atmosphere, Crespo and Listner believe that who gets there first wins.
“It’s all really about great power competition,” Listner said.
“The general consensus about great power competition is who’s going to eventually make the rules in an international arena. In other words, who’s going to have the most influence in shaping what’s legal and what the worldview looks like in the next few decades.”
Listner described the struggle between the United States and China for influence in shaping the world and its norms as one of competing visions, in which two radically different ways of understanding and operating in the world are being pitted against one another.
That struggle, he said, is playing out in space.
“Right now, there are two competing visions,” Listner said.
“One is the Artemis Accords, which the Trump administration started.”
“The Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China countered with their own competing vision, called the International Lunar Research station.”
The Artemis Accords, Listner said, are a framework for international cooperation regarding the exploration and use of Luna, Mars, and other astronomical objects. The effort is based largely on the U.N. Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and seeks to affirm peaceful cooperation, promote interoperability, and register objects in space with uniform standards.
The Outer Space Treaty currently has 111 signatories, including China and Russia. The Artemis Accords, first signed in 2020, has 14 signatories; China and Russia didn’t sign, viewing the effort as a commercial agreement needlessly favorable to the United States.
The International Lunar Research Station, on the other hand, is the CCP and Russia’s effort to wrest international space leadership away from the United States’ NASA, and champion a new, Eurasian order.
Indeed, little Yutu-2 is just the first of seven exploratory missions planned by China and Russia, which will prepare the way for the construction of the base. That matters when the future of space dominance is on the line.
“It’s about the competing view of what the rule of law is going to be and who’s going to make the rules on the lunar surface and in exploiting space,” Listner said.
“Whoever gets there first and starts building will be the one who makes the rules.”
To that end, Crespo warned that the CCP is attempting to reforge space in its own image, undercutting the United States’ ability to sustain itself not only as a world superpower, but possibly as a civilization.
“Neutralizing our space dominance will severely hamper our ability to win any major conflict, and ultimately even our ability to maintain a stable, modern, functioning society,” he said.
“If the Chinese move beyond simply neutralizing our dominance and gain clear space dominance themselves, that will become almost a fait accompli in terms of America losing its ability to remain a world power, and even simply an independent sovereign nation.”
Listner said that it’s gray-zone conflict at its finest, and that the United States and China are engaged in war by any other name.
“From the perspective of the PRC, we’re at war,” Listner said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese People’s Liberation Army HQ-9 surface-to-air missile launchers are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. A modified version of this missile was used to shoot down a satellite in a test by China in 2007. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
The Lunar Threat
That gray-zone conflict, in which nations engage in hostilities stopping somewhere short of opening fire, is in full swing in outer space.
“Any manned Chinese and/or Russian base on the moon would provide them a significant strategic advantage militarily, legally, and economically,” Crespo said.
In early December, Gen. David Thompson, the U.S. Space Force’s first vice chief of space operations, said that the CCP is launching attacks on U.S. space infrastructure “every single day.” These reversible attacks, in which U.S. satellite architecture or cyber systems are compromised temporarily, are largely understood to be a testing of the waters.
That is, preparation for a real war.
Thompson said in separate remarks that the Chinese regime is developing space capabilities at double the rate of the United States. Moreover, its growing array of platforms designed for space warfare is growing.
“[The Chinese] have robots in space that conduct attacks,” Thompson said.
“They can conduct jamming attacks and laser dazzling attacks. They have a full suite of cyber capabilities.”
“If we don’t start accelerating our development and delivery capabilities, they will exceed us. And 2030 is not an unreasonable estimate,” he said.
Such advancements point to weaknesses in existing laws such as the Outer Space Treaty, which many people erroneously believe bans the development of space weapons.
“Conventional weapons in space aren’t banned by the Outer Space Treaty, as can be seen by the Russian Federation’s ASAT [Anti-satellite weapon] demonstration a few weeks ago,” Listner said.
“However, nuclear weapons in certain circumstances are prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty.”
Listner’s remarks refer to the recent demonstration by Russia of an ASAT missile that it used to explode a satellite in orbit. Critics accused Russia of putting the lives of astronauts at risk, as the thousands of pieces of debris could destroy space vehicles. The event was similar to an incident carried out by China in 2007.
Indeed, the CCP is rapidly expanding its military capabilities as part of an all-out push to usurp military and commercial dominance from the United States. That effort is designed to provide the CCP with an overwhelming new blitzkrieg of military technologies worthy of science fiction.
The effort includes the development of hypersonic weapons, electromagnetic pulse devices, new naval vessels capable of launching rockets into space, and a nuclear reactor to power space travel, reportedly 100 times more powerful than those planned by the United States.
In all, the CCP plans to launch 10,000 satellites by 2030 in its efforts to topple U.S. space dominance.
There are several ways in which the CCP could use the moon, or space assets more generally, to exploit weaknesses in its adversaries or further its weaponization efforts. Increased presence would allow China greater communication and control of its space assets, most notably satellite architecture, which is key to U.S. and allied GPS systems that the military depends upon. Experts have long argued that a preemptive strike on U.S. GPS systems would be China’s first move in a war, including one over Taiwan.
Other potentialities are more hypothetical, such as the long-theorized use of a kinetic bombardment system that could leverage Earth’s gravitational pull against it. Such a system could effectively turn objects as simple as tungsten rods into weapons of mass destruction due to the velocity with which they would hit the earth.
This would effectively allow a satellite- or moon-based system to throw heavy objects at the Earth with the destructive power of a meteor, a feat for which the proposed weapon has long been termed “Rods from God.”
Though costlier than other systems, the idea for such a system has existed since the Cold War, and the Pentagon reportedly considered developing it in 2006 before pursuing hypersonic glide vehicle research instead.
Listner said the CCP’s continued conquest of space was partially owed to the failure of U.S. and allied leaders to recognize fundamental differences in Western and Eurasian ways of conceptualizing the world and politics.
“Fundamentally, we have to understand that the PRC and the Russian Federation do not think like the U.S. and Western nations,” Listner said.
His comments reflected a growing consensus, recognized by new U.S. congressional reports, that the CCP is advancing a global campaign to champion Marxism as an alternative to American capitalism, and to supplant the United States as a global hegemon.
To this end, the international community may like to play at lawmaking, such as is the case with the Artemis Accords, but the CCP has demonstrated a repeated unwillingness to adhere to such norms.
“NGOs, peace groups, and disarmament groups believe the PRC and the Russians think like us when they don’t,” Listner said.
“It’s called ‘mirror thinking,’ and it’s a very, very dangerous trap to play into.”
This picture released on Jan. 11, 2019, by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) via CNS shows the Yutu-2 moon rover, taken by the Chang’e-4 lunar probe on the far side of the moon. (China National Space Administrat/AFP via Getty Images)
A Base for Whom?
Perhaps nowhere is this trap more apparent than in the CCP’s so-called dual-use policy.
The CCP publicly denies that its space systems and projects, including its moon plans and satellite, are used for military purposes. For instance, it characterized its grabber satellite as a means of cleaning space junk, and its hypersonic missile test as a reusable spacecraft.
Critics of the CCP point out that the ambiguity about whether such technology is ultimately civilian or military in nature is a feature of dual use.
Dual use is the practical realization of the CCP’s policy of “civil-military fusion,” aimed at erasing all barriers between private and public life to ensure that all civilian technologies also advance Chinese military dominance.
The rockets used to launch Yutu-2 to Luna are one such example. The same type of rocket was used to launch the CCP’s new hypersonic weapons system, which U.S. leaders fear is a nuclear first-strike weapon.
CCP leaders said that the test was for the benefit of its space program.
“Virtually everything that enables a country to launch objects into space is indistinguishable from intercontinental ballistic missiles or hypersonic weapons,” Crespo said.
“For China, that distinction is fairly moot.”
Crespo said that that ambiguity is part of the program, designed to obscure whether the military or civilian function of any project was intended to be dominant.
Such ambiguity makes a difference on the moon, where all Chinese taikonauts are in the employ of the Chinese military.
“Any moon base serves scientific purposes while also clearly providing China a strategic lunar presence that will need to be defended, and can be used for surveillance, reconnaissance or military attacks of all types against satellites and other space assets,” Crespo said.
“No lunar base will be purely civilian to the CCP.”
A World to Gain
Space has been described by researcher Paul Szymanski as “the most obscure battlefield.” Its obscurity doesn’t, however, diminish its centrality to the future of nations. To the contrary, the economic, military, and political ramifications of space, and of the control of Luna, in particular, are nigh impossible to overstate.
“Space is America’s greatest asset and its greatest vulnerability,” Crespo said.
“The Chinese and Russians see it as our Achilles heel.”
To that end, one may consider the strategic value of space as the foremost point of CCP ambitions. It is the gateway through which one growing power might leapfrog a global hegemon to dictate the future of earthly affairs.
Indeed, it isn’t an overstatement to say that the moon is to the CCP what the Alps were to Hannibal. Should it be taken, the rest may fall like dominoes.
“The stakes are that high,” Crespo said. “Whoever controls space may control the world.”