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The future of international cooperation in space is splitting along lines of power on Earth

Chess pieces with national flags in a standoff on a world map
Trends in the the nature of cooperation in space is shifting. (Image credit: theasis via Getty Images)

Even during times of conflict (opens in new tab) on the ground, space has historically been an arena of collaboration among nations. But trends in the past decade suggest that the nature of cooperation in space is shifting, and fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted these changes.

I’m an international relations scholar (opens in new tab) who studies power distributions in space – who the main players are, what capabilities they possess and whom they decide to cooperate with. Some scholars predict a future in which single states (opens in new tab) pursue various levels of dominance (opens in new tab), while others foresee a scenario in which commercial entities bring nations together (opens in new tab).

But I believe that the future may be different. In the past few years, groups of nations with similar strategic interests on Earth have come together to further their interests in space, forming what I call “space blocs.”

From state-led space efforts to collaboration

The U.S. and the Soviet Union dominated space activities during the Cold War. Despite tensions on the ground, both acted carefully to avoid causing crises (opens in new tab) and even cooperated on a number of projects (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab), the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (opens in new tab) and the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (opens in new tab).

In 1975, 10 European nations founded the European Space Agency (opens in new tab). In 1998 the U.S. and Russia joined efforts to build the International Space Station, which is now supported by 15 countries (opens in new tab).

These multinational ventures were primarily focused on scientific collaboration and data exchange.

The emergence of space blocs

The European Space Agency, which now includes 22 nations, could be considered among the first space blocs. But a more pronounced shift toward this type of power structure can be seen after the end of the Cold War. Countries that shared interests on the ground began coming together to pursue specific mission objectives in space, forming space blocs.

In the past five years, several new space blocs have emerged with various levels of space capabilities. These include the African Space Agency (opens in new tab), with 55 member states; the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (opens in new tab), with seven member states; and the Arab Space Coordination Group (opens in new tab), with 12 Middle Eastern member states.

These groups allow for nations to collaborate closely with others in their blocs, but the blocs also compete with one another. Two recent space blocs – the Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian lunar agreement (opens in new tab) – are an example of such competition.

Race to the moon

Here, a real image of Buzz Aldrin saluting the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon.

Here, a real image of Buzz Aldrin saluting the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon. (Image credit: NASA)

The Artemis Accords (opens in new tab) were launched in October 2020. They are led by the U.S. and currently include 18 country members. The group’s goal is to return people to the Moon by 2025 and establish a governing framework for exploring and mining on the Moon, Mars and beyond. The mission aims to build a research station on the south pole of the Moon with a supporting lunar space station called the Gateway.

Similarly, in 2019, Russia and China agreed to collaborate on a mission to send people (opens in new tab) to the south pole of the Moon by 2026. This joint Sino-Russian mission also aims to eventually build a Moon base and place a space station (opens in new tab) in lunar orbit.

That these blocs do not collaborate to accomplish similar missions on the Moon indicates that strategic interests and rivalries on the ground have been transposed to space.

Any nation can join the Artemis Accords (opens in new tab). But Russia and China – along with a number of their allies on Earth – have not done so because some perceive the accords as an effort to expand the U.S.-dominated international order (opens in new tab) to outer space.

Similarly, Russia and China plan to open their future lunar research station to all interested parties, but no Artemis country has expressed interest. The European Space Agency has even discontinued several joint projects (opens in new tab) it had planned with Russia and is instead expanding its partnerships with the U.S. and Japan.

The impact of space blocs on the ground

In addition to seeking power in space, countries are also using space blocs to strengthen their spheres of influence on the ground.

One example is the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (opens in new tab), which was formed in 2005. Led by China, it includes (opens in new tab) Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey.

While its broad goal is the development and launch of satellites, the organization’s major aim (opens in new tab) is to expand and normalize the use of the Chinese BeiDou navigation system – the Chinese version of GPS. Countries that use the system could become dependent on China, as is the case of Iran (opens in new tab).

The role of private space companies

There has been tremendous growth of commercial activities in space (opens in new tab) in the past decade. As a result, some scholars see a future of space cooperation defined by shared commercial interests (opens in new tab). In this scenario, commercial entities act as intermediaries between states, uniting them behind specific commercial projects in space.

However, commercial enterprises are unlikely to dictate future international cooperation in space (opens in new tab). According to current international space law, any company that operates in space does so as an extension of (opens in new tab) – and under the jurisdiction of – its home nation’s government.

The dominance of states over companies in space affairs has been starkly exemplified through the Ukraine crisis. As a result of state-imposed sanctions, many commercial space companies have stopped collaborating (opens in new tab) with Russia.

Given the current legal framework, it seems most likely that states – not commercial entities – will continue to dictate the rules in space.

Space blocs for collaboration or conflict

I believe that going forward, state formations – such as space blocs – will serve as the major means through which states further their national interests in space and on the ground. There are many benefits when nations come together and form space blocs. Space is hard, so pooling resources, manpower and know-how makes sense. However, such a system also comes with inherent dangers.

History offers many examples showing that the more rigid alliances become, the more likely (opens in new tab) conflict is to ensue. The growing rigidity of two alliances – the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance – at the end of 19th century is often cited as the key trigger (opens in new tab) of World War I.

A key lesson therein is that as long as existing space blocs remain flexible and open to all, cooperation will flourish and the world may yet avoid an open conflict in space. Maintaining the focus on scientific goals and exchanges between and within space blocs – while keeping political rivalries at bay – will help to ensure the future of international cooperation in space.

This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (opens in new tab).

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Svetla Ben-Itzhak
Svetla Ben-Itzhak

Svetla Ben-Itzhak is currently assistant professor of Space Seminar and International Security at Air University with the West Space Seminar, Air War College. Prior to this, Svetla taught for many years at Kansas State University. Svetla has degrees in two fields, Applied Linguistics (MA) and Political Science (MA and PhD), and taught classes for two departments at K-State: the Department of Political Science and the English Language Program.