Red Moon Rising

Could China's lunar ambitions scramble politics here on Earth?

For more on China's lunar ambitions, click here.

In one of his most famous poems, the eighth-century Chinese master Li Bai looked up to the heavens and wrote, "I watch the bright moon/Lowering my head, I dream that I'm home." Today his descendants may be looking to the moon with even grander aspirations.

That's right: For all the talk of the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia, what if the flash point for U.S.-China conflict in the 21st century isn't the energy-rich atolls of the South China Sea or the minefields of the Taiwan Strait, but a bit farther away -- say, about 200,000 miles from Earth?

Control over the moon isn't really on the radar screen for most U.S. military planners. It has been 40 years since the United States last put a man on the lunar surface; in 2010, President Barack Obama canceled plans for a manned mission to the moon as part of a larger downsizing of NASA. When presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suggested committing U.S. resources to a permanent settlement on the moon, he was virtually laughed out of the Republican primaries.

But China certainly isn't shy about its heavenly ambitions. In 2011, Beijing announced plans to put a man on the moon by 2020, and its space agency has publicly suggested establishing a "base on the moon as we did in the South Pole and the North Pole." Still, Washington has given little thought to the possibility that once a permanent settlement is established, Beijing might seek to assert extraterrestrial territorial sovereignty, effectively declaring part of the moon's surface Chinese territory.

The idea isn't as wild as it sounds. During the Cold War, the possibility of countries claiming territory on the moon or other planets was considered realistic enough that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty was enacted to prevent it. Washington is wearing blinders, though, if it thinks this piece of paper will prevent a Chinese lunar land grab. And if China is tempted to seize some territory, such a move would surely be a game-changer for international security. A new realm of competition beyond Earth's orbit would alter great-power politics back home as dramatically as the 1957 launch of Sputnik spurred the Soviet-American race to the moon in the first place.

Of course, this is all speculative -- for now -- and it's important to note that annexation of lunar territory has never been publicly discussed by the Chinese top brass. Even if it seems like science fiction, though, the ramifications are so vast that the possibility needs to be taken seriously. If Beijing did decide to annex the moon, or even just part of it, doing so would undermine the current international legal regime in space, encouraging other countries to annex their own extraterrestrial territory. It could start a period of colonialism we haven't seen since the 19th century. Needless to say, territorial aggrandizement would only exacerbate U.S. anxieties over Beijing.

You might be asking: Why on God's green Earth would Beijing want to colonize the moon? The crazy thing is that, if one analyzes China's interests and the relevant international law, the Chinese moon scenario seems not only plausible but smart.

China is what international relations scholars call a "revisionist power," seeking opportunities to assert its enhanced relative position in international affairs. Establishing territorial sovereignty on the moon would be an especially powerful statement about China's arrival as a great power.

Prestige alone, of course, is hardly motivation enough for China to risk the inevitable storm of international criticism. Beijing would probably require other motivations, such as access to natural resources. The moon has valuable deposits of resources like helium-3, as well as the kind of rare-earth metals that China has a near monopoly on back on Earth but won't be able to mine forever due to environmental concerns. Scientists also say it might be possible to build a solar power station on the moon, collecting energy from the sun and transmitting it to Earth via microwaves. The Japanese construction firm Shimizu is already seriously evaluating a massive solar energy project on the moon.

Given China's terrestrial situation, a permanent moon base might also become militarily valuable if other Asian powers team up against it. This isn't an unreasonable suspicion: Regional rivals India and Japan are planning ambitious lunar missions, with a robotically manned Japanese moon base slated for 2020.

Most likely, Beijing wouldn't try to claim the entire moon, just part of it. For one thing, the cost of demonstrating complete occupation would simply be too high. The moon's surface is, after all, 14.6 million square miles. Second, leaving some of the moon's surface for other powers to claim would legitimize the Chinese annexation.

Would a Chinese moon claim even be legal? At the moment, no, but international law would provide only the flimsiest of barriers. Although the 1967 space treaty asserts common ownership of the entire universe beyond Earth's atmosphere, it also permits signatory states to withdraw from its terms with only a year's notice. And there's no law governing whether you can fly a rocket to the moon and land a ship there.

After renouncing the treaty, Beijing could annex regions of the moon and justify its actions with two arguments: First, in allowing states to withdraw, the treaty implicitly recognizes the possibility of claiming sovereign extraterrestrial territory. Second, after withdrawing from the treaty, China could declare any annexed lunar land terra nullius -- territory belonging to no one and therefore subject to national claims; Article 70 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties says that states renouncing or withdrawing from multilateral treaties are released "from any obligation further to perform" the terms of the treaty. Besides, most international law on the question of sovereignty claims defers to self-determination -- the wishes of the inhabitants. Since, as far as we know, there are no inhabitants on the moon, this doesn't apply.

By establishing a permanent moon base, China would also satisfy an important criterion for sovereignty. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States and Britain claimed territorial sovereignty on numerous uninhabited small islands in the Pacific by performing formal rituals such as flag-raising ceremonies. However, in situations in which both the United States and Britain claimed sovereignty, the establishment of a handful of settlers proved a convincing argument. Putting a few dozen people on the moon in permanent rotation would be a lot more legally compelling than simply planting a flag.

International legal norms might even encourage China to assert territorial sovereignty over its lunar lands. If the moon's riches are as vast as many have asserted, Beijing might want to claim sovereignty so that private investors would be willing to develop the region around its moon base. Otherwise, an anarchic scramble for lunar resources, with no legal institutions set up to arbitrate disputes or back up property claims, could result.

This line of argument might seem a lot more Popular Science than Foreign Policy. To most of us, the moon appears impossibly distant and forbiddingly hostile. But remember that Alaska and Australia were no less distant and hostile when Russia and Britain claimed them back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both territories seemed like wastelands -- until new technologies turned them into economic engines. Russia later exchanged Alaska for cash and warm relations with the United States. In Australia, Britain created a strong ally, molded in its own image, halfway around the world.

So let's not write off a Chinese moon colony as sheer fantasy. Unless steps are taken now to stop it, our children might someday look up to the night sky and really see a red moon rising.

Ward Sutton


Road Warriors

Who's the most traveled secretary of state of all time? It's complicated.

See an interactive map of the travels of the last four secretaries of state here.

How do you measure a legacy of an American secretary of state? Sure, there are dramatic moments -- treaties signed, crises negotiated, shuttles taken -- but much of the secretary's time is also taken up with lower-profile fence-mending and keeping up relationships with countries that don't get much media attention and where the tangible results of a meeting might not be so obvious. The world's eyes may have been focused on Hillary Clinton during the negotiations over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in May -- and the public had some concrete notion of what was and wasn't accomplished. Her visit to Bangladesh a few days later on the same trip? Not so much.

That may be why there's so much attention paid to the most tangible, if not most telling, way of measuring a secretary of state's performance: travel statistics. The State Department's website provides numbers for Clinton's total mileage (792,618), countries visited (98), total time in the air (71.9 days), and travel days (329). The website of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, had a similar feature, listing her final stats as 93.7 days in the air, 85 countries visited, and 86 trips taken.

With her tenure winding down, Clinton is already "most traveled" in terms of countries -- just recently surpassing Madeleine Albright, at 96 -- and days, though she appears unlikely to catch up with Rice in miles, at 1,059,247. Clinton's predecessor made a flurry of long-mileage trips back and forth to the Middle East in the final months of George W. Bush's administration, and made 23 trips to Israel in total. Media reports have covered the "race" between the two secretaries at various points in Clinton's tenure, and while officials are publicly adamant to point out that it's not a competition, it's also pretty clear that the "most traveled" title is taken pretty seriously.

Colby Cooper, Rice's former chief of staff, says he had the idea early in Rice's time in office to spruce up the page on the State Department website tracking the secretary's travel -- which had began during Colin Powell's term.

"After a while, we realized she was approaching a statistical record on miles traveled," he remembers. "It wasn't so much a competition -- at the end of the day the secretary didn't give two hoots about this -- but it was fun keeping the aggregate of what she was doing from a numerical sense. When you start adding it up, you realize that you're about to broach a million miles. Even in this day and age, that's pretty impressive."

While working for Rice, Cooper compiled a complete record of the travels of all 67 secretaries of state, cross-tabulating which countries have been visited by which secretary. He also noted that Rice's travels were equivalent to 42.54 trips around the world at the equator or 4.43 trips to the moon.

The Clinton team also declares its secretary the "most traveled," but prefers a different metric.

"Woody Allen nailed it when he said 90 percent of life is showing up. She's already visited more [countries] than any of her predecessors. One hundred should be on our next trip to Europe. And she's got a lot of time left, so 110 is a fair guess [by the end of her term]. That would be 15 more than the previous highest, accomplished by Madeleine Albright," says Clinton's spokesman Philippe Reines.

Reines argues that countries visited are a better indicator of a secretary's diplomatic activity.

"Miles is obviously another valid indicator, but doesn't tell the whole story as much as countries visited, total trips, or number of days abroad do," he says. "As an absurd example, a Secretary who travels to Singapore 100 times is going to rack up 5,000,000 miles (and remember that many are visited multiple times like Israel, Egypt, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, on and on) while one who visits 100 countries could only travel 1,000,000 miles. Which makes more sense in furtherance of our foreign-policy goals?"

(In case you're wondering, a refueling stop doesn't count as a "country visited." The secretary has to have an official event.)

The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, formerly the paper's diplomatic correspondent, keeps his own running tally of secretaries' travel days and quibbles with the official records kept by Rice and Clinton, since they count travel time as well as time spent conducting diplomatic business. "I deduct a day from every trip for travel time," he says. "That seems like the most fair way to do it." Kessler also dismisses the importance of mileage as "meaningless in terms of actual diplomacy." According to Kessler's numbers, as of April, Rice had 264 days on the road to Clinton's 239.

Clinton and Rice aren't the first secretaries to covet the "most traveled" title -- in 1996, Air Force staff served Warren Christopher a cake on his plane flying over East Africa at the precise moment that he broke James Baker's mileage record -- but the notion of a globetrotting secretary of state is actually a fairly new one. The first 23 secretaries -- including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Daniel Webster -- never left the country at all while in office, conducting foreign relations through their ambassadors. In 1866, William Henry Seward became the first secretary of state to travel abroad when he visited what are now the U.S. Virgin Islands (but were then Dutch territory) on a jaunt that also included stops in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba. This "working vacation," as the State Department historian's website refers to it, during which Seward met with three presidents, was the only trip abroad by a secretary until 1905.

Travel by secretaries become more common throughout the 20th century as improved air travel made quick trips more practical. The current model of constantly on-the-move, face-to-face diplomacy became the norm in the 1960s, with both William Pierce Rogers and Henry Kissinger visiting more than 60 countries while in office. Kissinger, whose "shuttle diplomacy" involved frequent back-and-forth trips to the Middle East, is still in third place in terms of days on the road with 313, including a 33-day trip to the region following the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

When Colin Powell came into office, he sought to revive the more traditional model of a secretary conducting statecraft from Washington. Powell wasn't much of a travel-junkie, writing in his 1995 autobiography, My American Journey, "Having seen much of the world and having lived on planes for years, I am no longer much interested in travel." According to a 2004 Post article by Kessler, Powell had been inspired by a letter he received from legendary diplomat George Kennan, which argued that previous secretaries had "seriously misused and distorted" the office through constant travel. Kennan felt that absences from Washington "held to a minimum and not indulged in when suitable alternatives are available." Some have also speculated that due to his frequent disagreements with others in the administration during the lead up to the Iraq War -- particularly Vice President Dick Cheney -- he didn't want to be away from Washington for too long while key decisions were being made.

Kessler's article was widely cited, and Powell was frequently referred to in subsequent pieces as the "least traveled" of modern secretaries. He devotes a full chapter to the issue in his new book It Worked for Me, writing, "For some unknown reason, the media, led by the New York Times, started clocking my frequent flyer miles. I didn't travel enough, they claimed. I should be making more waves out there in the world rather than spending so much time in Washington or at the UN headquarters in New York. None of them answered the obvious question: Is this trip really necessary? What national purpose is served in having me out there?" (Powell is likely confusing the New York Times with the Washington Post here.)

Powell traveled only 750,187 miles while in office -- fewer than Rice, Albright, and Christopher -- though he did make it to 89 countries, putting him in third place by that count. "[I was] not exactly hiding in a bunker," he writes in the book.

So what does any of this tell us? Obviously, raw numbers don't tell you much about what the secretary was accomplishing while they were racking up all those frequent-flier miles, but the stats do -- in a crude way -- tell the story of a how diplomacy has changed.

"Consider the fact that that the first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, never left the country. And Condi Rice, the 66th Secretary of State traveled a million miles and visited 85 countries on 86 trips. If that's the description of modern foreign policy, we've come pretty far," says Colby.

Reines says the increasing numbers also underlie the fact that face-to-face meetings have only become more important in the age of e-mail and videoconference.

"Think of all the technological advances of the last 20 years -- but the last four secretaries are the most traveled of all," he says. "While [Clinton] could replace meeting a world leader with Skype, how do you replace a handshake?"