Complexities and Visions of Outer-Space between the EU and Asia

More recent global competition has reignited outer space curiosity, as well as the use of it as an illustration of a country's competency, capability, and focus. Those States able to reach outer space by their own means demonstrate their power due to the financial strain required. Pushing back the limits of human exploration and establishing such ‘firsts’ conveys prestige and notoriety. The most recent ‘first’ was achieved on 23 August 2023. That day, the Chandayaar-3 mission led to an Indian lander known as Vikram touching down on the Lunar South Pole. There it dispatched its rover, Pragyan. This mission made India the fourth State to land an unmanned probe on the Moon after the US, Russia, and China. Moreover, it made it the first State to reach the lunar south pole.

Seeing the recent Indian success in reaching the area, this Op-ed explores and evaluates the depths of various East Asian space programs. It also analyses European ones and how they can connect or cooperate with the Asian ones, establishing paths to collaboration and benefits towards future exploration.

The Global Space Race

Long has humanity looked into space and gazed at what could be. Long has that curiosity been directed at Earth’s natural satellite, the Moon. As the Soviet Union and the United States started competing in space and showing their intergalactic muscles, they set out on the ambitious goal of reaching this satellite. Early on it seemed the Soviets had the lead as they launched the world’s first manmade satellite in 1957 and the first human into space in 1961, Yuri Gagarin. This damaged the US’ prestige and created the image of the USSR as a more innovative and advanced power. In 1962 then US president John F. Kennedy pronounced his famous “we choose to go to the Moon” speech, laying out an ambitious plan to reach the satellite before the USSR, which it finally did on 20 July 1969, thereby momentarily ending the Space Race.

Today however, the objective that the most ambitious space faring States are looking towards is not that of landing another rover on the moon. Instead, recent aspirations have focused on establishing a more permanent presence. The foundation of ‘lunar bases’ has become a clear goal and multiple States including the US, China, and Russia endeavour towards them. They all anticipate the establishment of their bases for the next decade. Alongside this, the European Space Agency (ESA) has established its own vision of lunar presence through the ‘lunar village’ initiative. Other than the prestige of achieving such an objective, presence on the Moon would help in scientific experimentation and exploiting local resources including various metals and water.   

The emergence of the Indian space program hints towards potential European cooperation with other space faring States in Asia with high ambitions. The EU possesses the technical expertise and means to advance these countries’ programs, as well as its own. This can help furthering the EU’s relations with its partners in Asia and establishing a more multilateral outer space presence adhering to international treaties concerning the topic. Advancing cooperation with upcoming space actors at an early stage could demonstrate the EU’s engagement and discern it as a serious partner willing to provide expertise towards mutual benefit in a holistic manner.

Status of the Moon

Above all, it is important to consider the status of outer space. Legally, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty serves as the basis for international law in the vast emptiness. Its first article is famous in proclaiming outer space as an area of peace and cooperation for the benefit of all countries. The national appropriation of space and celestial bodies, including the Moon, is strictly forbidden. Usage is “exclusively for peaceful purposes”. Such a treaty is substantial in that 114 States are party to it, including all of the EU Member States, except for Latvia. Concerning Moon bases, the treaty is unclear as they are appraised as peaceful endeavours, although they may be considered national appropriation when undertaken unilaterally.

There has been an attempt to form regulation specifically around the Moon, under the 1979 Moon Treaty, although success there is mitigated. This treaty only has 11 signatories and 18 parties, far from the triple digits of the Outer Space treaty. For the EU, signatories include Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The agreement not including the US and USSR at the time implied it had been rejected by major space powers. Therefore it never gained much ground. Instead, a more recent initiative, the Artemis Accords (2020), has continued to promote principles enacted under the Outer Space Treaty. These accords work both as principles and an initiative, although they are non-binding. They are a US-led mission to get humans back to the Moon by 2025. The principles surrounding the objective include peaceful cooperation and data transparency. States may choose to sign the Accords merely as a show of adherence to these principles, without having to participate in the 2025 initiative. Due to the daring objective and non-binding nature, the Accords have garnered success, gathering 29 signatories including 10 European and 8 Asian countries. Saudi-Arabia signed the Accords on 14 July 2022 and promptly left the Moon Treaty after, on 5 January 2023 (effective January 2024), demonstrating the accords’ success over the treaty. However, is it to be noted that neither China nor Russia are parties to the Artemis Accords. The US is, as it is its own initiative, while India is a signatory. Since the Accords are only a few years old, how they will develop and who else may join remains to be seen.

When assessing  space cooperation it is essential to consider the legal background of outer space, since it can serve as a common basis of principles for later initiatives. States will progress further in achieving their goals when agreeing on the same set of objectives and ethics. Treaties formalise this and facilitate such cooperation. Examples of areas for cooperation include moon bases. Research to be conducted there, resources to be exploited, methods of exploitation, these are all areas which will generate much debate, likely to benefit from common agreement.

Europe’s Space Program

Europe has been a space faring entity on a continental basis since 1975, when the European Space Agency (ESA) was founded. This program was created under the ESA treaty, signed by 10 States, which has since increased to 22 members. These include mostly EU Member States such as France and Germany, but also non-EU countries such as the UK, Norway, and Switzerland. Its headquarters are based in Paris although it possesses its own launch site in Korou, French Guiana, a site previously developed by the French space program. Officially the ESA and the EU operate as two separate entities, even though the ESA has helped carry out EU programs such as Galileo and Copernicus, whilst contributing to Horizon 2020. Due to this “some 20% of the funds managed by ESA in the recent past have originated from the EU budget”, explaining the strong links between the two. Yet, Esa director general Josef Aschbacher has highlighted that ESA would need more funding to keep up with other space programs in exploration and permanent lunar presence.

The EU also has its very own spatial initiative, known as the European Union Agency for the Space Program (EUSPA). EUSPA has been in existence since 2004 and consists of multiple flagship missions including Copernicus and Galileo, which ESA helped achieve. What separates it from ESA is how recent it is and that it is an EU agency under the EU budget, whilst ESA acts as an independent body. 

The Indian mission to the Lunar South Pole highlighted that space is becoming an increasingly open area. Open not only to traditionally space faring countries or private companies but also to more recent Asian actors such as India. The EUSPA and ESA should therefore focus on expanding cooperation. Since the EU already has strong commercial ties to Asia, furthering these towards spatial cooperation through the ESA could be key in not only developing preferential relations with these partners but also in furthering the Moon village initiative in a multilateral and multi-continental manner. From the Asian side, attaining technology and expertise from long developed space programs could help in advancing local spatial initiatives, space-related technology and know-how. The question is which space agencies the EU should focus on and expand cooperation with. 

ASEAN Space Programs

Asian space programs are often more recent than European, Russian or American ones. However, they are also ambitious and could in some cases greatly benefit from mutual cooperation with the EU. In this regard, Vietnam’s space program is of particular note. The Vietnam National Space Center (VNSC) was only founded in 2011. However, Vietnamese ambitions go further back as their first local satellite, Vinasat-1, was launched in 2008 by the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group. Alongside this, on 3 November 2021, in the presence of  the French and Vietnamese prime ministers Airbus and the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) signed a letter of intent towards cooperation around satellites and the “Vietnam Space Technology Program 2020 – 2030” program. Considering the VNSC’s mission to “advance towards the international level” for Vietnam and Southeast Asia, both the ESA and EUSPA could benefit from cooperating with  Vietnam. Vietnam could provide another prime location for launches, near the equator. Furthermore, cooperation in space may expand to other sectors, with spillover effects greatly benefiting overall relations. 

Another interesting spatial initiative is that of Indonesia. Indonesia’s National Institute of Aeronautics and Space has existed since 1963. It pioneered Asian space ambitions with the launch of the Palapa A1 satellite in 1976. Nowadays, however, its nature and activities have changed. The agency was liquidated in 2021 and rebuilt as the Secretariat of the Indonesian Space Agency under the National Research and Innovation agency. Its missions are to ensure Indonesia’s participation in international space fora through research papers and action plans, serving as a focal point of contact.

One of the latest space programs to emerge is that of the Philippines, founded in 2019. Despite its youth it is ambitious and sees many uses in space including some concerning climate, sovereignty, research and development, capacity building, and international cooperation. Already, the program has launched multiple satellites through the continuation of its Maya class satellites, the most recent one being Maya 6 in June 2023.

Alone, these space programs bear little weight. Together, however, they offer a strong partnership for European initiatives towards satellite imagery and lunar exploration. This in turn may contribute to the creation of a more integrated ASEAN space program with a strong presence in the spatial sector. So far there is no established program of cooperation between ASEAN States. This may be for multiple reasons including current programs’ sizes, how recent some are, or even the lack of a space program in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei Darussalam, and Timor Leste. These countries are not a part of the Outer Space Treaty either, meaning there is a lack of common ground for rules-based cooperation. 

India and China

Assessing space programs of a more considerable size within Asia, more specifically those of India and China, is essential. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was founded in 1969. Its overall mission is focused on using space for three points, national development, research, and planetary exploration. The latter is important due the ambition it conveys, seeing India taking a leading role. Recent exploits by the Chandayaar-3 mission demonstrate it reaching for that role. As announced by Narendra Modi in October 2023, this mission is to be followed up by the building of a space station by 2035 and the landing of astronauts on the Moon by 2040. The contrast between India’s and the Southeast Asian programs is clear. Pursuing its population growth and ambition to become a global power, India also envisages to be a space faring state, one with its own space station and exploits. Yet, differences remain between India and more developed space programs such as those of the US, Russia, China, and the EU. They aim to reach the Moon by 2030 and establish moon bases there, whilst India simply aspires to land astronauts in 2040, building its capacity in the sector with bold visions. Mars, the long-term goal of multiple States and space companies, had an Indian spacecraft orbit it until 2021, known as the Mars Orbiter Mission.

The China National Space Administration, founded in 1993, is the most ambitious and developed one in East Asia. In a sense, this development has come out of its rivalry with the US, which has expanded to many sectors from political to economic to space faring. One of the most notable feats is the construction and launch of the Tiangong space station in 2021. This makes China the only State to run its own space station, as other States use the International Space Station. Yet, Chinese plans do not stop there. China’s International Lunar Research Center (ILRC) initiative plans to establish a base on the Moon by the 2030s through national but also multilateral efforts. Signatories of the Chinese project include Russia, Pakistan, Belarus, Venezuela, and South-Africa, among others. This regroups many States that are more sympathetic to China. Through the ILRC, whether intended or not, China is building a sphere of multilateral dialogue around outer space which excludes Western partners. On the Martian front, China is one of the few States to have landed a rover on the surface, known as the Zhurong.  

EU-Asia Space Venturing

Space cooperation can be the key to many benefits. Southeast Asia has ideal locations for spaceports and spatial technology often spills over into civilian technology. Development in the region may further the creation of ASEAN level space coordination, creating a larger partner with more credible means, one capable of matching European ambition. Alongside this, helping ASEAN space programs will advance those States, their research, and their capabilities. However, the issue here is the long-term factor. These space programs remain focused on what they can afford, mainly satellite launches. They are not yet partners for space exploration or research on the lunar surface. 

That is why the Indian and Chinese ventures should also be explored. Cooperating with India means reaching out to a still developing partner that could use European expertise. Yet this partner has the means and the vision for space exploration, ready to undertake initiatives unilaterally. Indo-European relations could benefit from cooperation, providing grounds for a wider array of dialogue from economic to security.

China, out of all East Asian programs, is the most evident and yet the most dubious and complex one. Signatories to the ILRC initiative make it difficult for Europe to join in, as it would mean cooperating also with Russia, Belarus, and Venezuela. However, shunning dialogue with China would imply letting Outer Space become an area of polarisation and complexifying the advancement of a common rules-based international order in there. 

Thus, Europe faces the difficult choice between long and short term benefits, between political ambiguity and straightforwardness, and between easier and more complicated partners. India is in a sweet spot, with ambition, means, and yet still room for European expertise. Hence, considering the Chandayaar-3 mission and future goals, India could offer a potential option for enhanced space cooperation. Already the ESA and ISRO agreed on further cooperation in 2021 concerning navigation, data, and operations. The EU and the ESA should attempt to push further and eventually bolster joint initiatives, similar to the Chinese ILRC, but on a smaller scale, at least at first. However, were this cooperation to bloom, perhaps the EU and India could envision common lunar research initiatives. Hence, objectives such as the lunar village could gain a higher degree of concreteness whilst the Indian hopes of landing astronauts on the Moon could be transformed into permanent presence, speeding up the Indian timeline. Yet, cooperation with Vietnam and Indonesia should also be in the cards for Europe, exploring possible future collaboration. The race into space is back on and no one feels inclined to be left behind.  

Author: Laszlo de Bellescize, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: NASA Imagery by Pixabay