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Chinese lunar base
As more countries pursue exploration of the Moon and Mars, it creates increasing opportunities for geopolitical conflict in space. (credit: CNSA)

Could a 500-year-old treaty hold the key to peace in space?

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Space is changing again. Much has been made about the “Second Space Age” where launch costs are cheaper and more countries have access. This is all correct, of course and we are right to think about it. We are not there yet, but the discourse around space is changing from merely a support system for Earth to providing value by itself. No longer are we limited to Earth orbit: countries and companies are seeking to utilize cislunar space, build permanent presences on the Moon, and take advantage of space-based solar power and resouces from asteroids. This is uncharted territory. Could these new features destabilize great power competition?


Great power competition in space today is an extension of great power competition on Earth. The US, China, Russia, Europe, India, and Japan make up the great power system. Usually, great powers can find a balance among themselves, but this balance can be upset when one or more great powers declines or rises rapidly. The defining factor of the 21st century great power system is the rise of China and the decline of the US. An emerging factor to watch to is India’s rise as a threat to China.

Great power competition in space today is an extension of great power competition on Earth.

Underpinning this competition are the benefits and potential future benefits to controlling and utilizing the space domain. The space industry is becoming one of the largest industries in the world, valued by the Space Foundation at $469 billion in 2022. Beyond the traditional space economy there are new vast untapped resources for great powers to exploit, like space-based solar power and asteroid mining.

While the United States continues to maintain the world’s most advanced space capabilities, its dominance is increasingly under threat. China landed rovers on the Moon and China operates its own space station, India and Japan plan to land rovers on the Moon, and Japan landed a probe on an asteroid, and all of the great powers have, or are developing, human spaceflight capabilities.

Space is a Wild West when it comes to laws and regulations. The great powers signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967. This treaty prohibits nuclear weapons in space, limits the use of celestial bodies to peaceful purposes, precludes sovereignty over outer space, and forbids establishing military bases, weapons testing, and military maneuvers on celestial bodies. But lurking in the background is the risk that total war in space, including significant use of orbital kinetic weapons, would generate space debris, potentially jeopardizing humanities future use of space.

The great powers

The United States

The leader in space collaboration and exploration. The US has laid down a blueprint for the utilization of space resources in a collaborative manner, as outlined in the Artemis Accords. Furthermore, the Trump Administration’s National Space Policy highlights the country’s ambitious goal to establish a permanent presence in space. A significant factor distinguishing the US from other spacefaring nations is the strong presence of private stakeholders in its space industry, with companies like SpaceX leading the charge in commercialization.


Ambitious aims with a long-term vision. China has set its sights on grand objectives for its space program: the development of space-based solar power, ambitious plans for lunar and asteroid mining, and a target to establish a permanent presence on the Moon by 2049. Intrinsically linked to its military space program, the country’s space ambitions are increasingly involving the private sector. The pursuit of space excellence forms an integral part of the “Chinese Dream”, embodying the nation’s quest for rejuvenation and global prominence.


A legacy of space supremacy. Russia operates a significant satellite network, third by number of satellites behind the United States and China. Its space agency, Roscosmos, while grappling with budgetary constraints, remains a formidable player in space exploration and technology. Russia’s robust human spaceflight program continues to be a symbol of national prestige, and its Soyuz spacecraft has long been the workhorse for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. Since the war in Ukraine, Russia lost its partnerships with the West. Its space strategy is evolving in response to rising competitors and shifting geopolitical realities, with increasing emphasis on militarization and independent space capabilities. Russia has taken similar steps to bolster its kinetic counterspace capabilities and modernize for information warfare and cyber conflict in space, including the creation of the Aerospace Forces in 2015.


A great power that’s not a state. The European Space Agency (ESA) may operate fewer satellites than Japan, yet when combined, EU countries collectively control 226 satellites. This puts the EU above Russia but below China in satellite operations. The potency of the European influence in space hinges less on sheer capabilities or resources but rather on the unity and cooperation among its member states. Europe saw its role evolve with the establishment of the Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space in 2018, signifying the EU’s growing ambitions in the rekindled space race.


Whether space exploration will contribute to stability or instability among great powers depends upon which resources are seen as scarce or abundant.

The key US ally. While Japan may not operate as many satellites as the US, China, or Russia, its space program is nonetheless expanding and militarizing, spurred by the actions of China and North Korea. Today, Japan’s space program is a key ally to the US, providing support on military, economic, and scientific fronts. This cooperation extends from sharing Earth observation data to the operation of four domestically produced navigation satellites that augment US capabilities. As a signatory and participant of the Artemis Accords, Japan continues to play a significant role in global space exploration.


The new great power. Although India may be considered the weakest among the great powers, its aspirations in space exploration are anything but. India seeks to achieve traditional goals, such as satellite launches, moon rovers, Venus missions, asteroid landings, and the development of a human space program. The Indian private sector, fueled by significant public investment from the Indian Space Research Organization, is experiencing rapid growth, demonstrating India’s commitment to become a key player in the global space arena.

Case studies

Whether space exploration will contribute to stability or instability among great powers depends upon which resources are seen as scarce or abundant.

  1. Managed Competition: In June 1494, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesilla, agreeing to split the lands of the world outside of Europe in half. With vast riches in each demarcation, the two great powers mostly respected the treaty. Great powers tend to compete for resources, but the world’s resources in the 16th century seemed infinite. Why risk war when there is enough for everybody?
  2. Unmanaged Competition: Five hundred years later, great powers controlled almost the entire world, and they were setting their eyes upon one of the last untapped (by Europeans) areas, Africa. By 1914, Europeans controlled almost 90% of Africa. Resources were no longer infinite, and great powers like Germany and Italy resorted to war. The scramble for Africa led to increasing competition and rivalries which would ultimately contribute to World War I.
  3. Non-Competition: A place the great powers decided not to compete was Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty System, signed in 1959, dedicated Antarctica to peaceful scientific exploration and banned claims of sovereignty. Areas basically without resources can be set aside from the usual competition and cooperation of great powers.


Will great power competition in space be managed, unmanaged, or non-competitive?

  1. Managed Competition: If space resources are seen as infinite, competition in space colonization could be managed. Many resources in space are abundant: solar energy, mineral wealth in asteroids, territory on Mars. Like in the 1500s, each great power will race to conquer and exploit these resources, but there is enough of these kinds of resources to satisfy each state. We should expect competition in this field to evolve similar to US-USSR competition in the Cold War. Eventually the great powers settle into a new international system with a balance of power and a balance of role, and we return to a relatively peaceful space domain.
  2. Unmanaged Competition: Some resources in space are scarce, like orbital slots and landing zones on the Moon. These areas will become contested, like the Scramble for Africa. This scarcity will drive zero-sum behavior and will involve robotic competition. The Outer Space Treaty will not prevent this. When the great powers signed the Outer Space Treaty, space was a lot like Antarctica. Establishing a presence in orbit carried strategic value, yet the prospect of utilizing deep space or celestial bodies seemed a distant dream, much like harnessing the wilderness of the Antarctic. International law is consensual: there is no enforcement mechanism in place that can affect a great power. As resources in space become valuable and scarce, the great powers will ignore the treaty. A great power war in space would generate massive amounts of space debris, jeopardizing the sustainable use of space for humanity.
  3. Non-Competition: Parts of space have little value to the great powers, like vast regions of empty space, low-metal-content asteroids, highly elliptical orbits, and low-value lunar sites. These areas could be designated off limits to sovereignty, similar to the Antarctic Treaty System.

Future research questions

  1. How will exploitation of abundant resources reshape the global balance of power? Is there a third state (like England in the 1500s) that can exploit great power relations and change the balance of power? England took advantage of the international system in this period, using piracy to gain riches itself and become a great power, eventually even a hegemon. How will minor states take advantage of the future international system to their own gain?
  2. How can we manage competition over scarce resources? This is a question that the field international relations has struggled with since its inception. Whether in space or on Earth, the question of how to manage zero-sum competition, security dilemmas, arms races, and prevent war is one that scholars continue to wrestle with.
  3. Which areas of space are viewed as abundant or scarce right now? I theorized some possible examples, abundant: solar energy, asteroid material, scarce: orbital slots, Moon sites, but it is possible that the great powers do not see things this way. We should be able to determine based on their behavior which resources are scarce and which are abundant.


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