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What would China’s collapse mean for the race to the moon?

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a screen image captured at Beijing Aerospace Control Center shows Shenzhou-16 manned spaceship successfully docking with the radial port of core module Tianhe of the space station on Tuesday, May 30, 2023. China launched a new three-person crew for its orbiting space station on Tuesday, with an eye to putting astronauts on the moon before the end of the decade. (Li Jie/Xinhua via AP)

One of the more significant developments of the current decade had been the second race to the moon. While NASA and a coalition of nations and commercial companies have started Project Artemis, China has begun its own lunar effort. The prize is not so much the bragging rights for the side who gets to the moon first but which side accesses the abundant resources of Earth’s nearest neighbor.

But geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan has a prediction that could throw the idea of a moon race between two superpowers in doubt. Zeihan believes that China has at most 10 years before it collapses.

Zeihan thinks China’s end is near because of the fall in birth rates, which has only accelerated since the end of the one-child policy. China’s belligerence, even toward commercial firms that might be inclined to invest in that country, is not helpful. China has not recovered from the strict lockdown measures instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the flow of information, an attempt to prevent the rise of rivals, means that he will not have any warning to change policies until it is too late.

By the way, China is also experiencing a real estate bubble that could wreak havoc when it eventually bursts.

Zeihan is a little vague about what a collapsed China would look like, beyond pointing out that it would no longer provide products that the Western world needs to survive. It could be anything from what Russia was soon after the Soviet Union fell to total anarchy, similar to the Warring States period that started some 25 centuries ago.

Leaving aside some of the scarier parts of a country with nuclear weapons falling into chaos, Zeihan’s prediction could have ramifications for the current race to the moon and continued political support for Project Artemis.

It’s no secret that one reason why Artemis has garnered political support is fear that China will return to the moon before the NASA-led alliance can, garnering the international prestige and, perhaps, the rich natural resources that Earth’s nearest neighbor has in abundance. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former United States senator, rarely fails to mention that the world is engaged in a second race to the moon. The prospect of a Chinese victory in Space Race 2.0 would be dire.

But everything changes if, as Zeihan predicts, China collapses. With no space race and no threat of a Chinese space hegemony, supporters of the Artemis program will have to scramble for other reasons to return to the moon. Otherwise, opponents of an imminent return, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) may reassert themselves. Why spend all that money to send astronauts to the lunar surface when we have so many problems on Earth?

Even without a space race to provide the spirit of competition, plenty of reasons exist to return to the moon. Those reasons include science, commerce, and soft political power. The world will profit from a return to the moon beyond winning a great power competition.

Still, competition matters. Because of the Cold War, humankind went from launching a basketball-sized satellite in low Earth orbit in 1957 to walking on the moon in 1969. Since the end of the first moon race, progress in space has been slow and halting, The pace has only picked up after the rise of a hostile China as a major space power. The American-Chinese rivalry has spurred investment in space technology.

On the other hand, even in a post-China world, competition in space will still exist but the players will be private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab. SpaceX has already become a big winner by gaining contracts for the Commercial Crew and Human Landing System programs. Once the moon, Mars and beyond have been opened to commercial activity, the sky will literally be the limit for who can reap the natural and energy resources waiting in space. Artemis can be the catalyst of the greatest gold rush in history.

Of course, Zeihan’s timeline may be a little off. Sinologist Gordon Chang published “The Coming Collapse of China” in 2001. Currently, the nation remains a dangerous and powerful U.S. foe on Earth as well as in space. Even so, the fall of the current regime in Beijing is likely to happen sooner or later. Freedom wins out over tyranny every time. And free people will inherit not just the Earth but the stars, as well.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond, and, most recently, Why is America Going Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Artemis Accords Bernie Sanders Bill Nelson China economy China–United States relations Moon mission Politics of the United States Space exploration Xi Jinping