New geopolitics in space : what awaits us


Simonetta Di Pippo, former Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

How to cite the publication

Simonetta Di Pippo, New geopolitics in space : what awaits us (preface), Revue diplomatique, 23 (ed. Mathilde Domont), Paris, January-March 2024.


This is the author's preface to the 23rd issue of the Revue diplomatique of the Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée on Asian space powers.

As stated in the Outer Space Treaty (OST)[1], in its article I, 'The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all (hu)mankind'.

The Outer Space Treaty (OST) came into effect on October 10th, 1967, marking the approach of its 60th anniversary. The treaty has indeed been embraced collectively, in spirit. The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), initiated in 1959, now boasts over 100 members and continues to expand[2]. Currently, more than 90 countries have launched at least one satellite, illustrating a growing[3] interest in space activities. This increase is paralleled by the involvement of more governmental entities and a surge in commercial ventures, contributing to the expansion of space economy. The OST advocates for equitable access to space, regardless of a country's level of economic or scientific development, a principle that is increasingly reflected as emerging and developing nations advance in the space sector. This expansion necessitates a global consensus on governance to ensure the peaceful use of outer space and maintain global peace. The entry of new global players, both public and private, into the space domain raises significant questions. These include Asian Space Powers' roles and challenges, their impact on the global ecosystem, and strategies for harmoniously integrating their ambitions.


The history of India in space commenced in 1975, with the launched of the Aryabhata satellite, named after a famous Indian astronomer. This event, marked India's debut with the satellite being fully developed within the country and launched by a Soviet Kosmos-3 rocket. Next year, India will celebrate the 50th anniversary from its first time in space. In between, India can count on several accomplishments: becoming the 6th country in the world to have autonomous access to space capabilities (SLV – satellite launch vehicle – was launched successfully for the first time in 1980), PSLV followed becoming operational in 1994, while GSLV in 2001, and they have been operational since then, serving not only the national needs but also assisting other countries to bring into space their satellites.

ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organization, has maintained a continuous presence in international space discussions. A new course in trajectory started in 2014, when when Narendra Modi assumed office as the India Prime Minister. He boosted the space activities in the country, with the goal of enhancing India's regional and global influence. This correlation between technological and political power underlines the strategic benefits of space capability, as we have learned throughout the entire history of astronautics. At regional level, Modi decisions initiated the launch of the GSAT-9 satellite[4], also known as the South Asia Satellite, positioned in GEO (Geo-stationary orbit) and offering services to the region. Modi conceived a clear, strategic, and ambitious plan. The satellite was supposed to be used by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), members, including: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and initially Pakistan, who later decided not to participate in the project. This initiative aligned with one of the Modi policy views, i.e. neighborhood first. The trajectory of India's space policy took a marked turn on March 27, 2019, when the country conducted an ASAT test, using a ballistic missile developed by the Defense and Research Organization (DRDO) to destroy the Indian Microsat-R satellite. It demonstrated capabilities comparable to those of the United States, Russia, and China. While the number of debris generated is moderately high, it remains an act of non-peaceful use of space. In response, the international community supported United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/77/41 on December 7, 2022, which aimed to avoid further tests. The resolution passed with 155 votes in favor, nine against, and nine abstentions, with India among the abstentions, while China voted against it.

The political support from Modi for the Indian space program brought ISRO to become the 6th space agency in the world to achieve significant milestones, including the controlled lunar landing on 23 August 2023 at 12:33 UTC, positioning India as the 4th country to do so[5]. The Vikram lander touched down between Manzinus C and Simpelius N craters, becoming also the first one to land so close to the South Pole. Although, the lander did not survive the Moon night, its landing was strategically scheduled to happen during the BRICS meeting in South Africa, which was took place from the 22nd to the 24th of August, underscoring once again a bold political move. No one in the world can avoid looking at India anymore in the space arena. The influential role the country gained in the region and in the world may change the geopolitical landscape, especially in relation to China's space ambitions.


Since the onset of the original space race, China has wanted to be part of the exclusive circle of space-faring countries that also has a significant global influence. Originally, the technological steps needed were insufficient, but its substantial advancements over the years, helped position China as a key contender in the ongoing space race. This is highlighted by the establishment of the Tiangong space station in low Earth orbit (LEO). With the possible decommission of the International Space Station around 2030, China is poised to become the only country in the world with a government-operated space infrastructure, assuming no new developments. Meanwhile, the United States's administration as well as NASA are shifting their focus towards lunar exploration and beyond, planning to rely on commercial space stations post ISS. The successful return of samples from the surface of the moon by Chang'e 5[6] in 2020, solidified the country's status by becoming the 3rd country to accomplish it, following the Soviet Union and the United States during the first space race.

China has effectively structured its public agencies and recently began to develop its own commercial sector. The country has recently developed hundreds of commercial space companies, some of which have garnered significant global attention. China first wanted to foster growth within the BRICS+ and lead cooperative space initiatives, but the vision did materialize. In terms of future exploration, China decided to partner with the Russian federation to develop the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). As the project evolves, China is positioning itself as the leading country, aiming to attract other countries and organizations to collaborate on it. This includes entities such as the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Organization (APSCO), founded in 2008 and with its headquarters in Beijing, which includes the following members: Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, and Thailand. The cooperation scheme for the ILRS contrasts with NASA's approach for the Artemis program, which has already seen 36 countries sign the Artemis Accords, with no involvement from the private sector.

China has intensified its efforts to forge international partnership by issuing a public call for partners and collaboration and establishing the International Lunar Research Station Cooperation Organization (ILRSCO) based in Hefei, Anhui Province, also called the Deep Space Science City. This initiative indicates a departure from previous models, underscoring a distinct management and collaboration scheme for the development of the ILRS, which deviates from NASA's method. The Artemis program bases its collaboration instead on an approach that is a natural extension of what has been done with the ISS, where NASA is the central figure. This raises questions about China's strategies concerning the BRICS+ space programs and whether future collaborations will involve bilateral and multilateral agreements that adapt according to each country's specific interests in various programs. It also prompts speculation on whether India will assert a leadership role within the alliance and how China will respond to such positions. The stakes are larger than space exploration and entail broader geopolitical implications.


On April 10, 2024, Japan and the United States jointly announced an agreement with NASA that designates the first non-American astronaut to land on the Moon as part of the Artemis program in 2028, will be Japanese[7]. This development coincides with the involvement of a Canadian astronaut in the 2025 Artemis II mission, where they will orbit the Moon without landing. Japan has long been an important player in space exploration, contributing significantly to the ISS, and having renowned astronauts, such as Koichi Wakata. After retiring from JAXA, Wakata joined Axiom, a Houston-based private company developing the Axiom space station, becoming the first non-American ex-professional astronaut to do so. Japan's space program, known for its scientific missions that enhance understanding of the solar system, continues to excel and develop its commercial space sector. The country is well-positioned to achieve a historic milestone by having the first non-American, Japanese astronaut land on the Moon.

Reverse engineering

The United States, China, India, and the Russian Federation have all conducted tests on Earth-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, thereby demonstrating their capabilities for potentially non-peaceful actions in space or in response to attacks.The Outer Space Treaty bans territorial claims on celestial bodies and the placement of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in orbit, it does no cover conventional weapons. This raises questions about what constitutes a weapon in space, especially when disruption can occur through jamming or spoofing the signals of critical space infrastructures. Space is becoming increasingly congested, contested, and competitive, showcasing state-of-the-art technologies serves as a form of deterrence. The only viable solution is the establishment of a global governance regime, which includes space traffic coordination at a global level and responsible behavior by all actors. Such measures are essential for maintaining order and ensuring that the voices of major space-faring nations are respected and heard on the international stage.

Space stations initially in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) followed by Moon exploration represent the current and future arenas of international competition. As research stations and lunar villages become established, it is hoped that a spirit of cooperation will prevail, aligning with the goal of maintaining the peaceful use of outer space. Each country's step towards expanding humanity beyond Earth will be observed, particularly the contributions from Asian space powers, which are expected to play a significant role. By applying the concept of reverse engineering to space exploration strategies, actions can be identified that must be taken both now and, in the future, to prevent conflicts and adhere to Article I of the Outer Space Treaty. The efforts made today and in the coming years will play a critical role in shaping humanity's history as a multiplanetary species.

[1] United Nations, "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies", Office for outer space Affairs.

[2] United Nations, "Members of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space", Office for outer space Affairs.

[3] United Nations, "For all humanity: the future of outer space governance", page 9.

[4] Indian space research organisation, "GSAT-9", Department of space.

[5] CBS, "India becomes 4th country to reach the moon as spacecraft lands near lunar south pole", 2023.

[6] NASA, "Chang'e 5".

[7] J. FOUST, "Japanese astronauts to land on moon as part of new NASA partnership", Space News, 2024.