With 35 countries signed up to the Artemis Agreements, Washington wins by a landslide over Beijing and Moscow's lunar station project, which totals six

The other space race between China and the United States

La República Oriental del Uruguay es la última nación que ha suscrito los Acuerdos Artemis de Estados Unidos. Fue el 15 de febrero en Washington, por parte de su ministro de Exteriores, Omar Paganini, a la derecha - PHOTO/NASA-Keegan Barber
The Eastern Republic of Uruguay is the latest nation to sign up to the US Artemis Agreements. It was done on 15 February in Washington by its foreign minister, Omar Paganini, right - PHOTO/NASA-Keegan Barber

The United States and the alliance of interests between China and Russia are engaged in a hidden race against each other. It is practically unknown, because it takes place in the discreet diplomatic arena, although it is directly related to the space hegemony that one seeks to maintain and the other two to achieve. 

  1. Reaction from Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
  2. On the one hand 35 nations, on the other six

Washington, on the one hand, and the coalition of Beijing and Moscow, on the other, are doing everything in their power to enlist the political leaders of the nations over which they exert influence or maintain close ties in their respective lunar and space exploration projects.  

The White House's search for partners is carried out in accordance with instructions from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. What are they?  

Los presidente de China y Rusia han apostado por dar luz verde a una estación de investigación sobre la superficie de la Luna. La agencia espacial de Pekín lanzará en mayo la primera misión en el marco del proyecto ILRS - PHOTO/Kremlin
The presidents of China and Russia have committed to giving the green light to a research station on the surface of the moon. Beijing's space agency will launch the first mission as part of the ILRS project in May - ILRS - PHOTO/Kremlin

The United States has conceived, promotes and leads what it has dubbed the Artemis Accords. It is a non-binding, multilateral initiative to bring together with NASA and its Artemis lunar exploration programme nations that are willing to voluntarily assume responsibility for the sustainability and safety of outer space activities. 

These Agreements were presented to society in October 2020 in a virtual form because of COVID-19. It was during the 70th International Astronautical Congress and was immediately signed by plenipotentiary representatives of seven of the United States' most trusted nations: Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. A month later, on 12 November, it was signed by Ukraine. 

Los Acuerdos Artemis propugnan que las futuras misiones de explotación del cosmos se dediquen a fines pacíficos, que las naciones que participen  eviten conflictos y caso de emergencias proporcionen asistencia - PHOTO/ESA
The Artemis Agreements call for future missions to exploit the cosmos for peaceful purposes, for participating nations to avoid conflict and to provide assistance in emergencies - PHOTO/ESA

Reaction from Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin 

The Artemis Agreements are a set of general principles that serve as "rules of conduct for maintaining a sustainable human presence on the Moon and for future activities in outer space". What are the rules they advocate? They call for nations to be "transparent" in their space exploration plans and policies; for the technologies they develop to be "interoperable"; and for "harmful interference between countries" during the conduct of their activities to be avoided.  

It also seeks to "guarantee" that space missions are dedicated "to peaceful purposes" in accordance with international law; to "register" objects launched into space; to "disseminate" the scientific data obtained, "avoid conflicts" through the creation of "safety zones" and "provide assistance" in the event of emergencies in the cosmos.

After six months and as a result of Washington's diplomatic action, three other nations joined in 2021: Korea and New Zealand at the end of May and, on 15 June, Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil became the first South American nation to sign the Accords.  Poland and Mexico followed shortly afterwards. 

La iniciativa ILRS chino-rusa fue presentada en junio de 2021 en San Petersburgo durante la Conferencia Mundial de Exploración Espacial (GLEX). En imagen, el entonces director general de Roscosmos, Dimitri Rogozin - PHOTO/IAFASTRO
The Sino-Russian ILRS initiative was launched in June 2021 in St Petersburg during the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX). In the picture, then Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin - PHOTO/IAFASTRO

China and Russia, surprised at first, decided to launch a joint project, very different from NASA's, but also open to cooperation with third countries. They announced it on 16 June 2021, during the World Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) in St. Petersburg. At the Tavrichesky Palace, the Beijing space agency (CNSA) and the Moscow space agency (Roscosmos) presented the International Lunar Research Station or ILRS, a very ambitious three-stage initiative, to be built between 2028 and 2036. The long-distance race had begun.

However, unlike the United States, the Sino-Russian project was not immediately followed by the accession of other nations. Nevertheless, Washington accelerated its contacts and in 2022 nine states joined the Artemis Agreements: Israel, Romania, Bahrain, Singapore, a second Latin American nation, Colombia, France, Saudi Arabia and the first two African countries, Nigeria and Rwanda. 

Pakistán se decidió a formar parte del proyecto ILRS chino-ruso tras la adhesión a los Acuerdos Artemis de India, firmados en junio de 2023 por su embajador en Washington, Taranjit Sandhu - PHOTO/NASA-Bill Ingalls
Pakistan decided to join the Sino-Russian ILRS project following India's accession to the Artemis Agreements, signed in June 2023 by its ambassador to Washington, Taranjit Sandhu - PHOTO/NASA-Bill Ingalls

On the one hand 35 nations, on the other six

The Kremlin's illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed the priorities of Moscow and Beijing. The space cooperation programme between Roscosmos and CNSA for the period 2023-2027 could not be approved until the end of 2022. And as of 31 December, the Russian-Chinese ILRS venture had no partners other than its founders. 

On the other hand, the number of third nations affiliated to the Artemis Agreements was growing rapidly. The year 2023 saw the Czech Republic join at the beginning of May, followed by Spain. The Minister of Science and Innovation, Diana Morant, signed the Agreements on 30 May, on the occasion of a visit by Bill Nelson to the Moncloa Palace. Then came Ecuador, India, Argentina... And the turning point was reached.

Con sus satélites de comunicaciones y observación de la Tierra fabricados y puestos en órbita por la industria espacial de Pekín, la Venezuela de Nicolás Maduro fue el primer país en acceder a ILRS - PHOTO/ABAE
With its communications and Earth observation satellites manufactured and put into orbit by Beijing's space industry, Nicolás Maduro's Venezuela was the first country to accede to ILRS - PHOTO/ABAE

The veteran diplomats in charge of foreign policy in Beijing, Wang Yi, and Moscow, Sergei Lavrov, urged their respective ambassadors and the situation began to change in mid-2023. The first government to accede to the ILRS project was Nicolás Maduro's Venezuela, followed by South Africa - one of the BRICS states -, Belarus - a staunch ally of Russia -, wealthy Azerbaijan and Pakistan, which had three decades of space cooperation with China and had just seen New Delhi partner with Washington. In December, Egypt, the new BRICS as of 1 January, joined. 

The pace of accessions to the Artemis Agreements has not stopped. After Spain, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Angola joined. And this year Belgium, Greece and Uruguay have joined, the latter as recently as 15 February. As of today, there are 35 members on Washington's side: 15 European, 8 Asian, 7 American, 3 African and 2 Oceanian nations. Since December, the Beijing-Russia duo has been stuck on six countries: two Asian, two African, one European and one Latin American.

Con la presencia de la embajadora de Estados Unidos, Julissa Reynoso, y del administrador de la NASA, Bill Nelson, la ministra de Ciencia e Innovación, Diana Morant, firma en mayo de 2023 la adhesión de España - PHOTO/NASA-Jackie McGuiness
In the presence of US Ambassador Julissa Reynoso and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Minister of Science and Innovation Diana Morant signs Spain's accession in May 2023 - PHOTO/NASA-Jackie McGuiness

The race to the bottom will continue as 2027 approaches, the year in which the White House hopes the first woman will set foot on the Moon. In the meantime, forays to Selene continue on both sides. With NASA's support, the US company Intuitive Machines achieved a partially successful landing on 22 February with its Nova-C Odysseus surface module, which landed some 200 kilometres from the lunar South Pole. China is preparing for the launch of its Chang'e-6 lunar probe, China's first mission under the ILRS project, in May. 

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