China’s successful trip to the far side of the moon — the first nation to accomplish the feat — is not only “great advertising” for potential technology partnerships, it’s “part of the larger Chinese space effort” that seeks to expand China’s own dual-use capabilities in space, says USIP’s Dean Cheng.

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Laura Coates: Well, joining us now is Dean Cheng, the USIP, China program Senior Advisor. He joined the USIP from the Heritage Foundation, where he spent over a decade as a senior researcher fellow on Chinese political and security affairs. He's written extensively on China's military doctrine, the technological implications of its space program, and dual use issues associated with China's industrial and scientific infrastructure. He joins us now from the United States Institute of Peace. Glad to have you here, Dean Cheng, how are you?

Dean Cheng: Good. It's actually moderately cool here in Washington. Amazing for July.

Laura Coates: It is. And that's nice, because I'm in Minnesota today, and it needs to be a little cool would not be a feat. But it's a beautiful day. And it's a beautiful reminder that Minnesota in the summer, I gotta tell you, it cannot be beat. Let me ask you, though, about what's going on, particularly with this interesting notion of China's space program, because there's been some recent efforts on the moon, I understand. What's happening?

Dean Cheng: So, the Chinese are engaged in a full court press, if you will, about exploring the moon, they have just recently brought back samples from the far side of the moon to your listeners, there is no Dark Side of the Moon.

Laura Coates: Tell that to Pink Floyd, okay. We don't need your education or your thought control. What's wrong with you? Go ahead.

Dean Cheng: Yeah no, but nobody's ever landed on the far side of the moon before. So, for them to not only land but now to bring back samples is huge. And they're already thinking that there could be some very interesting scientific discoveries about everything from the makeup of the moon to whether the far side may have had some different geologic and history war, perhaps has been hit by different meteors. The Chinese have also landed at the south pole of the moon. And the reason the polar regions are important is because they think that in some of the craters where literally there has never been any light in millions of years. There could be ICE and ICE is important because it's water. And water is both heavy and can be broken down into key elements of hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used to make fuel, which people can breathe. So, it's a major effort the Chinese are making on the moon.

Laura Coates: And they're making some claims to water sources in the southern pole to that effect, right?

Dean Cheng: Well, they haven't made any formal territorial claims, technically, you can't lay claim. But as NASA has said, what they're worried about is that the Chinese might say, for example, look, we're going to set up the following bases. And we'd like you to stay, say, 10 miles outside that range. Because when you land on the moon, you're going to throw up a lot of dust and all that sort of thing. You could put people in danger, you do enough of that. And all of a sudden, you've essentially laid claim to the moon on what's termed health and safety reasons, rather than territorial claim, but the effect is the same.

Laura Coates: Why is the space program such a big part of their broader effort? I think it’s a part of their economy, is that right? And other aspects of it and technology, technology, diplomacy, what?

Dean Cheng: It's all of those things. So, when the Chinese succeed in doing major feats in space, and they have with landing on the far side and bring back samples. They are saying to the world, you know, America's cool, America's got some interesting technology. But they're the past, we're the future. When they can overfly Taiwan with their space probes and things like that. That's obviously got military implications and political implications. It's also great advertising. Are you interested in high technology? Do you want to buy advanced technology? You can pay top dollar for American stuff, or you can buy stuff that is a little, maybe less capable. But way less expensive from here in the good old People's Republic of China.

Laura Coates: So, in terms of the, you know, partnerships, obviously, you often hear of space programs and beyond, you hear about, you know, groupings of different countries who are hoping to lean on one of those expertise and enjoy a kind of symbiotic relationship. Are we seeing that with China and other nations?

Dean Cheng: Absolutely. The Chinese, particularly with the moon have something called the International Lunar Research Station project. That is a group of about 12 nations at this point, the most important one being Russia. Before the Russia-Ukraine war, they were prominently mentioned. Now, the Russians are below more in the background. But the implication here is, again, join with us, China join with us, China and Russia. And you too, can access technology, you get prestige, your first astronaut might go to the moon. And that's a really interesting political message to play to Africa, South America, the Middle East. The U.S. has the Artemis Accords, that has 43 nations, interestingly, including Brazil and India, which would normally be Chinese partners. But we're having trouble getting back to the moon. And right now, it's, we think that we'll beat the Chinese there. But it's not clear.

Laura Coates: In terms of their growing range of space capabilities, I mean, does this have any impact on American security and the Pacific region?

Dean Cheng: Politically, it definitely does. Again, it's a reminder to every country in the region that China can see what you're doing with reconnaissance satellites, can hit you with missiles, etc. But the other piece here is that it's part of the larger Chinese space effort, the Chinese now have a space plane up, which has been deploying objects that we're not really sure what they're capable of. Of course, they've tested anti-satellite weapons, the 2007 tests were the worst debris generating event in history, there's 1000s, and 1000s of pieces still up there 17 years later. Space is how the U.S. fights its wars, we are able to go out there, find the enemy, communicate among our forces, coordinate operations, and put missiles literally through the second window, not the third window, on the fourth floor, because of space. And what the Chinese are doing is saying two things. One, we can do the same thing, because we have broad space capability. But more importantly, we can keep you from doing it. Because we are opening the ability to find and kill your space systems. That's not we're not talking about fighting on the moon. But the systems that are needed to track lunar probes to make sure that you can communicate with them. Those are all dual use, the Chinese have a better idea of where our satellites are, because they can keep better track of objects all the way out to the moon, and beyond.

Laura Coates: Dean and this is really important to think about and I think many people not realizing the extent of you know, the interplay between, say a lunar Space Program or the recovering of various samples and beyond to the how it more effectively impacts diplomacy and the economy and technology and other ways. Really fascinating to have you on this morning. Thanks so much for joining us.

Dean Cheng: Thank you for having me.

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