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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.