Putin e Xi

Russia and China, From the Entente Cordiale to the Entente Spatiale

Russia and China recently agreed to jointly build and manage a research station on the Moon. This world-overturning event should exert an eye-opening effect on the West, whose perceptions about the actual strength and potential of the Russo-Chinese axis are often misleadingly oriented to make downward forecasts and estimates.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the countries’ space agencies is inherently epoch-making and it is the ultimate manifestation of the two rivals-turned-allies’ will to put apart short-term interests and diffidence for a superior goal – the mutual well-being – in the awareness that their dreams of unipolarity-killing grandeur cannot become true by pursuing isolationist policies. They must cooperate, whenever and wherever required, and they must make the effort to trust each other. Not easy, but not impossible – and the number of initiatives and projects carried out together in the last seven years is the self-proving evidence of the blind faith placed in what we could name the “historical effort”.

Thanks to the priceless support provided by China, Russia managed to circumvent the Ukraine-related sanctions regime and to help its allies – from Belarus to Venezuela – overcome the pandemic and economic turmoil. Because the Dragon has the money, a lot of money to invest, whereas the Bear has both the will and the instruments to challenge the unipolar order and to make it more Asian-centered.

Together, they could rule over Eurasia via their perfectly complementary Eurasian Economic Union and Belt and Road Initiative. And together, combining the Chinese money with the Russian space-related expertise, they could now get to literally universalize their partnership, converting the 21st century’s Entente Cordiale into the first-ever Entente Spatiale.

The Project

The MoU has been signed on March 9 by Russia’s and China’s space agencies, respectively Roscosmos and China National Space Administration (CNSA), and eyes cooperation in the establishment of a permanent lunar base. Actually, the news is no news for those who have been following the evolution of the Russo-Chinese space partnership and we forecasted the signing of the MoU shortly afterwards the Artemis Accords.

Indeed, we had written that the Artemis Accords, as they were conceived, could speed up the already-ongoing “space decoupling” between the West and the East in the light of and as a result of the exclusion of Moscow and Beijing from Trump’s grand strategy for the conquest of space. More in detail, we forecasted that the Western alliance for space would encourage Moscow to take seriously Beijing’s proposal to build a lunar base together; a project that was of no interest to the Kremlin until last October.

The Artemis Accords have changed everything and they proved fundamental in convincing Russia to abandon mistrust and to accept China’s undoubtedly tempting and win-win offer. According to the text, made available on the CNSA’s website, the two signatories are going to construct an “International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) […] on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit that will carry out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities such as the lunar exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment and technical verification”.

The overall project is described as “a comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation” whose construction is set to be the result of Russia’s and China’s “close collaboration on planning, demonstration, design, development, implementation and operation of the ILRS”. In short, or written otherwise, the signatories are going “to use their experience in space science, R&D and use of space equipment and technology to jointly formulate a road map for the construction of the ILRS”.

The MoU is the perfectly calibrated response of Moscow and Beijing to the exclusion from the Artemis Accords and, if everything goes as agreed, it might be fully operational (and livable) by the late 2030s or the mid-2040s.

The repercussions

The mere fact that the MoU should have been signed at the Saint Petersburg’s Global Space Exploration Conference, programmed for June 2021, but eventually it has been signed three months in advance and with no previous announcement – in order to generate a “surprise effect” in public opinion – is verily eloquent. It says something about the (optimal) health status of the Russo-Chinese partnership and it speaks loud about its (bright) future.

Again, it has been the West’s strategic myopia to galvanize the strengthening of the Russo-Chinese axis and to provide it with the necessary lifeblood to expand further. As Barack Obama failed to forecast Euromaidan’s long-term consequences – forgetting Zbigniew Brzezinski’s warnings about the inherent risks tied to the geopolitical ambition to oust Russia from Europe – Donald Trump failed to understand that excluding Russia from the alliance for space would oblige it to resort to the only major power open to similar partnerships: China.

With the diffidence overcome in one of the few areas where Russia still felt a kind of mistrust and a sense of insecurity, the way is now fully paved for the elevation of the Entente Cordiale into the Entente Spatiale. The already-healthy partnership is likely to benefit from the history-making MoU in terms of cooperation extended to sensitive areas – from military to cyber-sphere – and of sharing of Moon-based strategic resources, and it could even lay the foundations for a new space era centered on Beijing and Moscow.

Indeed, until now we didn’t mention one of the most important lines of the MoU. The ILRS, far from being an exclusive dominion, is projected to be “open to all interested countries and international partners”. What does this mean? The lunar base – again, if ever constructed – could possibly be used by the consors imperii to host missions, instrumentation and even personnel from other countries interested in joining the space race. These countries, for obvious reasons, may belong to the Global South or to the developing world, although partnerships with the West are not to be ruled out, with their participation meaning the translation to space of the Russo-Chinese idea of multipolarity.