NASA’s administrator Bill Nelson recently expressed concerns over China’s aims in space and, in particular, that China would, in some way, claim ownership over the moon and other stop other countries from exploring it.
In an interview with the German newspaper, Nelson cautioned, “We must be very concerned that China is landing on the moon and saying: “We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon saying: ‘It’s ours now and you stay out.” China immediately denounced the claims as a “lie”.
This spat between the administrator of NASA and Chinese government officials comes at a time when both nations are actively working on missions to the Moon – and China has not been shy about its lunar aspirations.
In 2019, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. That same year, China and Russia announced joint plans to reach the South Pole of the Moon by 2026. And some Chinese officials and government documents have expressed intentions to build a permanent, crewed International Lunar Research Station bu 2027.
There is a big difference between China – or any state – setting up a lunar base and actually “taking over” the Moon. As two scholars studying space security and China’s space program, we believe that neither China nor any other nation will likely take over the Moon shortly.
It is not only illegal but also technologically daunting – the costs of such an endeavour would be extremely high, while the potential payoffs would be uncertain.
China is limited by international space law
China cannot take over the Moon because it is against current international space law.
The Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means” (Article II).
Legal scholars have debated the exact meaning of “appropriation”, but under a literal interpretation, the treaty indicates that no country can take possession of the Moon and declare it an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives.
If China tried this, it would risk international condemnation and a potential retaliatory response.
While no country can claim ownership of the Moon, Article I of the Outer Space Treaty allows any state to explore and use outer space and celestial bodies.