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BRICS: Can it form multilateralism in Outer Space?

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Paula Smith

In January 2023, Russia’s assertion regarding the deteriorating relations with the United States had far-reaching consequences, particularly concerning their participation in the International Space Station (ISS) program. Moscow’s stated intention to withdraw from the ISS by 2024 has engendered significant uncertainties, posing serious questions about the future continuity of space cooperation between these two nations. This situation has added complexities and challenges to the international space domain. This marked the end of a 25-year forum of space cooperation between the two nations. However, in the BRICS meeting in Hermanus, Moscow offered BRICS members-Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa the chance to participate in the construction of a joint module for its planned orbital space station. Many critics suggest that the growing partnership between Moscow and Beijing in outer-space poses challenge for the west.  However, this article contends that the growing partnership between Moscow and Beijing in space exploration should not be seen as a challenge for the West but rather as a wake-up call for a more inclusive and peaceful approach to outer space, free from historical power struggles. By promoting collaboration among diverse nations, BRICS can pave the way for a more democratic system in space, while addressing concerns about potential militarization and other environmental issues in space.

The Cold War space competition between the United States and the Soviet Union initiated the trend of having space capabilities to project political power. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 caused alarm in Washington and led to the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, intended to rival Soviet achievements. In 1961, the Soviet Union made a record in history by sending Yuri Gagarin, the first man to enter Earth’s orbit. Subsequently, the triumph of the Apollo program, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first man on the moon, solidified the US’s position as the space exploration leader. During this period, space exploration remained largely confined to the two superpowers, leaving developing nations with limited involvement due to significant financial barriers and technical advancement.

The formation of BRICS was driven by a desire to create a more democratic financial and monetary system, reducing dependency on the US and European developed countries. In 2021, BRICS countries took a significant step towards collaboration by launching a cooperation committee to share remote sensing satellite and data. Now Russia’s call for BRICS members to participate in the construction of a joint module for its planned orbital space station. Undoubtedly, the Russia-Ukrainian war has emerged as a significant determinant in Moscow’s decision to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS), which had been one of the last remaining channels of cooperation between Russia and the United States. Russia’s plans for the future involve the launch of the first stage of their planned space station, known as the Russian orbital system, which is anticipated to take place in 2027. This development further underscores the complexities surrounding the evolving dynamics in space exploration and raises important questions about the future landscape of international space cooperation.

Critics argue that Russia-China space cooperation poses a threat to national security. However, China’s aggressive advancements in space have disrupted the traditional hegemony of NASA, emphasizing the need for inclusive participation. In the article “U.S. Military Transformation and Weapons in Space” written by Everett C. Dolman mentioned that “No nation relies on space more than the United States.” It is essential to recognize that NASA’s historical exploits may not have been transparent to other nations, thus necessitating a new era of collaboration and shared knowledge.  While the Russia-Ukraine conflict has influenced Moscow’s decision to withdraw from the ISS, BRICS’ partnership on the Russian orbital system presents an opportunity for greater collaboration in space. By leveraging the strengths of each member nation, BRICS can serve as a driving force to address complex issues such as space militarization and promote peaceful space exploration. For example: country like India which is known for cost-effective space programs can play a pivotal role in enabling other countries to participate in space exploration with shared values. Furthermore, BRICS serves as a forum through which China’s assertive space ambitions can potentially be moderated by fostering the development of appropriate space policies and collective goals.

In light of the growing concern over the militarization of outer space, the current international space treaty appears insufficient to adequately address future risks.

As the world faces critical challenges like climate change, inequality, war, international cooperation is paramount to resolve complex problems in space. Relying solely on individual nations to explore and utilize outer space may lead to fragmented efforts and exacerbate geopolitical tensions. While acknowledging that engagement with Moscow and Beijing poses certain challenges for member nations, embracing multilateralism in space through BRICS represents a hopeful avenue.

Considering the ever-changing geopolitics and power dynamics between the major world powers, it is can be surmised that the nature of war in outer-space will be inherently complex.

The collapse of the Russia-U.S. space corporation and Moscow’s withdrawal from the ISS underscore the need for a new approach to space exploration. BRICS offers a unique opportunity to foster multilateralism in outer space, decoupling it from space completion and promoting cooperation among diverse nations. By adhering to principles of non-discriminatory access and shared values, BRICS can lead the way to utilize space exploration for collective goods while mitigating concerns about space militarization. Embracing international cooperation, we can collectively address the challenges and opportunities that lie beyond our planet and ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for all of humanity. By building bridges among nations and promoting peaceful exploration, BRICS can revolutionize outer space cooperation for the benefit of all mankind. Moreover, Russian future space station might offer an opportunity to move beyond reliance on the American umbrella and foster a new system of multilateralism in space, thereby narrowing the gap between Western nations and the rest of the world.