China's Chang'e-5 moon probe. Photo: CGTN

China is pushing ahead with plans to have people stationed on the Moon, marking the latest move in its accelerating space race with the United States. 

Beijing recently announced a spate of ambitious lunar space exploration projects, which include building a base on the Moon and having scientists stationed there. 

In a statement on China’s Space Day on April 24, China National Space Administration (CNSA) deputy director Wu Yanhua said China will start the fourth phase of its lunar exploration program this year, which covers multiple things.

The main goal of this phase is to conduct scientific exploration at the lunar south pole to facilitate the construction of a permanent robotic lunar base able to accommodate long-term human stays.

China’s lunar program is divided into three phases, the first phase being “circling around the Moon,” the second being “landing on the Moon” and the third phase is “returning from the Moon.”

Wu’s statement indicated the fourth phase of China’s lunar program could possibly be characterized as “staying on the Moon.”

Wu stated that China’s endeavor “would be a science station open to all and openly run by different countries and organizations together.” He also said China’s lunar base project would be a three-step process and discussed the major objectives of each step. 

For the first stage of the project, China aims to survey and build the necessary facilities in 10 years. After that, China plans to build a science station for the second stage of the project, with engagement from different countries, organizations and the private sector.

The third and final stage would focus on operations, where the station would provide good conditions for global scientists. 

A Chinese flag unfurled on the Moon from Chang’e-5 lunar probe. Photo: AFP / China National Space Administration / CNS

In line with the first stage of the project, Wu said China would be launching three lunar probes – Chang’e-6, Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8 – before 2030.

Chang’e-6 will collect samples from the Moon’s far side, while Chang’e-7 will search for water and other resources at the Moon’s south pole, while Chang’e-8 will be used to test in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology.

In addition to successive Moon probe launches, he added that China was planning to set up a satellite constellation around the Moon for communication and navigation purposes.

Wu also inaugurated an international cooperation center for satellite data and applications under the CNSA, and a data and application center for the remote sensing satellite constellation of BRICS countries.

He also discussed China’s plans to build an asteroid defense system, which can detect and hit asteroids. Wu said the CNSA plans to test a system by 2025-2026 by monitoring and deflecting an asteroid to avoid it hitting the Earth. 

Wu was keen to emphasize international participation in China’s space projects. “The CNSA has always promoted openness and international cooperation,” and “China has called on all countries to work together to build a global community with a shared future in outer space,” he said.

At the same time, CNSA head Zhang Keijian said China “will uphold the principles of equality, mutual benefit, peaceful use and inclusive development and adhere to the concept of peace and cooperation.”

He also added that China would “make greater contributions to the exploration of the universe, people’s well-being and the progress of human civilization, and work with global partners to build a community with a shared future for humanity in outer space.”

These efforts are in line with China’s accelerated plans to establish a long-term lunar presence. In January, China and Russia announced plans to set up a joint Moon base by 2027 – eight years earlier than originally planned. 

A photo taken from the Chinese Yutu 2 lunar rover as it looked back at the Chang’e 4 lander in 2019. Photo: WikiCommons

China is barred from participating in US joint projects by the Wolf Amendment, a 2011 measure prohibiting NASA from cooperating with China without special approval from Congress. As a result, China is excluded from the US Artemis Program, which is the US-led effort to establish a long-term lunar presence. 

Russia has refused to join the Artemis Program, saying it is too US-centric in its current form. Russia also decided to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS) due to sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine, severing one of the few remaining avenues for US-Russia cooperation.

Major spacefaring countries such as China, Russia and the US are driven by political, economic and military factors in their lunar ambitions.

In the wake of recent trends and phenomenon that have profound effects on the international system, such as the rise of populism, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, these goals are increasingly pursued within the context of great power competition, deglobalization and the emergence of a multipolar world order on Earth.

This new order will no doubt have significant implications for lunar exploration, as this activity will plausibly fall into the hands of emerging great power blocs, such as the US and its allies, China supported by Russia and independent players such as India and Brazil.

So, the Moon may increasingly become an additional flashpoint between these competing blocs and states, with lunar exploration being a potential spark for great power conflict.