What Venezuela’s moonbase vow says about China, Russia, and the USA

Caracas’ participation in the International Lunar Research Station is more than merely symbolic.

Venezuela recently declared that it intends to cooperate with China and Russia on the International Lunar Research Station, making it the first country to formally do so. While Caracas’ participation may seem purely symbolic, as the crisis-stricken petrostate is in no position to make substantial lunar contributions, even this symbolism has broad geopolitical implications on Earth and in space alike.

China and Russia envision the ILRS as a “comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operations,” primarily tasked with lunar archeological and ecological research while also producing lunar energy. The timeline is ambitious, as China hopes to complete a basic model by 2028 and achieve full functionality by 2040. This places the ILRS in competition with the U.S.-backed Artemis Accords, a multilateral 2020 framework for lunar exploration and cooperation in space, which currently has 26 cosignatories, including Latin America’s Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil.

As the next space race begins to take shape, lunar exploration promises strategic and economic benefits. To highlight just one area: lunar mining could upend global markets for strategic and valuable cobalt, lithium, and rare-earth minerals. The legality of mineral mining is ambiguous, as a 1979 UN treaty regards astral resources as a “common heritage of mankind” that cannot be exploited for national gain. Yet many nations, including the United States, have laws explicitly allowing it. The stakes are high for geopolitics, as China currently supplies most of the world’s rare-earth minerals, some of which are critical to American defense technology. Thus, competition for lunar real estate is also competition for technological capacity on Earth.

The ILRS and Artemis also play a role as signifiers of geopolitical influence and strategic alignment behind either Beijing or Washington. Notably, both the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, as well as the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) have also signed up to partner with the Russian-Chinese project. Caracas’ declaration of its intent to join them is just the latest indicator of China’s growing ties to the region and to Venezuela specifically.

Venezuela was the first Latin American nation to establish a “strategic development partnership” with China in 2001, growing into a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2014. Trade growth between the two nations has averaged over 14 percent annually since 1995, providing a lifeline for the flailing Maduro regime and leaving Venezuela more dependent on Chinese help than ever. Venezuela has also been an enthusiastic recipient of Belt and Road Initiative funding, including a $7.5 billion high-speed rail project which withered as Venezuela’s economic crisis deepened.

This growing cooperation between China and Venezuela may also have implications for global energy markets. China has frequently decried oil sanctions as  “coercive diplomacy,” accusing the U.S. of infringing on Venezuelan sovereignty and hindering its economic growth. Yet China itself has a large stake in Venezuelan oil. For one, the Caribbean nation is deeply in debt, and oil exports—currently restricted under U.S. sanctions—could offset their balance to China. Further, Venezuela provides an alternative to relying on Russia—China's second-largest oil supplier, and an increasingly tenuous trade partner following their invasion of Ukraine.

Finally, China has also deepened its military ties to the region, from extensive arms sales to satellite ground station construction to joint training exercises. Each of these efforts expand China’s influence at the expense not only of the United States, but also Russia, within what had been former Soviet spheres of influence.

As the United States increasingly engages in a policy of “strategic denial,” countries find themselves being forced to choose a side. Many countries, particularly in the developing world, are aligning more closely with China, attracted by its economic largesse in the form of Belt and Road funding, its more lenient approach to authoritarianism and human rights abuses, and a sense that U.S. engagement waxes and wanes based on its own interests and politics. The thinking is reflected in a recent Venezuelan op-ed that endorsed alignment with the “assertive panda” over the “distracted eagle.” 

Thus, while Venezuela’s commitment to the ILRS might be symbolic, it still signals an alternative future vision of China in the lead, both on Earth and in the final frontier.

Anna Prince is a research analyst intern with BluePath Labs. She is studying linguistics and government at Georgetown University.