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Russian Chinese Nuclear Cooperation

From the Earth to the Moon

21 March 2024

The international order is in a constant dynamic state. From one era to another, it witnesses structural changes as some great powers fall and others rise. Rising nation-states, which compete with more established ones, are typically met with one of two attitudes:  Either resistance (through attempts to challenge and undermine their potential), or cooperation. This is best exemplified by the different approaches adopted, respectively, by the United States and Russia towards China. 

Russian-Chinese cooperation has witnessed remarkable breakthroughs in various fields over the years. The strategic partnership between the two countries has become “without borders,” as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced after their summit in February 2022.  On March 5, Moscow revealed that the two countries were planning to install a nuclear power generation plant on the surface of the Moon between 2033 and 2035. The project, which includes a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), will function as a "power unit" to supplement the energy requirements of upcoming lunar settlements, according to Yuri Borisov, Director of Russia's space agency, as reported by Reuters. While the project is consistent with the broad partnership between Russia and China in the fields of nuclear energy and space, it is only the proverbial “tip of the cooperation iceberg” between the two countries in the nuclear field. 

Over Twenty Years of Nuclear Cooperation

For two and a half decades, nuclear cooperation has been a cornerstone of the growing partnership between Moscow and Beijing. It dates back to the late 1990s when work began on the first phase of the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant in the city of Lianyungang in Jiangsu Province. The plant was built within the framework of the Sino-Russian economic and technological cooperation agreement signed on October 20, 1999. The first phase of the project, which includes the initial unit of the plant, was finished in May 2007, and the second unit was completed in August of the same year. A uranium enrichment plant, which operates with a gas centrifuge and an experimental fast neutron reactor (CEFR) at full capacity, was completed in China on December 22, 2014. 

In the subsequent decade, the second phase of the project was completed in 2018, adding the third and fourth units to the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant. This led to accumulated mutual trust between Moscow and Beijing, which further emboldened their nuclear cooperation. In the same year, the China National Nuclear Corporation and the Russian nuclear energy company “Rosatom” signed an agreement package worth 20 billion yuan —  the largest in the history of their cooperation in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The agreement also included the construction of four additional nuclear units in China, each with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, which are units 7 and 8 in the Tianwan Nuclear plant, and units 3 and 4 at the Xudabao plant (a fourth-generation nuclear power plant and the first of its kind in the world whose first two units were complete in December 2023). The four units are scheduled to be completed by 2027/2028. 

A Positive Impact on the National Economy

Russian and Chinese specialists have been working side by side to advance technological and nuclear partnerships between the two countries in this important and sensitive strategic area.  The bilateral nuclear cooperation has also had positive repercussions on other domains including trade and investment. For instance, the Tianwan Nuclear Power plant has stimulated the growth of associated industries in China and Russia, resulting in the creation of over 20,000 jobs. Similarly, the Xudabao nuclear power plant contributes more than 40 billion yuan to the Liaoning equipment manufacturing industry chain.

Bolstering Nuclear Cooperation in the Future 

During a visit to Moscow in March 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a long-term strategic cooperation program in the field of nuclear energy. The agreement, which extends to 2030, includes the development of  “fast neutron reactors” which are fourth-generation nuclear reactors relying on Russian technology. Those reactors have the advantage of cooling using liquid metal instead of water. 

Russian-Chinese Collaboration in the Field of Space

In parallel to their nuclear partnerships, there is extensive and growing Chinese-Russian joint action in the field of space as the two powers stand to gain from each other’s expertise. Moscow was the first to launch a space satellite, “Sputnik,” on October 4, 1957, and has also been the largest country to launch space satellites for itself and other countries. More than 60% of the world's space satellites, including American ones, are launched by Russian space rockets. China has also made important leaps in its space program, becoming one of the world's leading space powers over the last five decades since it launched the first Chinese satellite, Dongfanghong-1, in 1970.

Russia is also supplying China with thermos nuclides (TB) units, which are thermoelectric radioisotope elements, to meet the needs of the Chinese lunar program. It also participates in constructing new modules on the Chinese Tiangong space station. To add, both Russian and Chinese cosmonauts conduct joint space flights. In March 2021, the Russian state space corporation “Roscosmos” and the Chinese National Space Administration signed a memorandum of understanding to establish an international scientific station on the lunar surface (ILRS). The agreement includes a roadmap for establishing the Russian Chinese lunar station.

Meanwhile, China is supposed to send the Chang'e-6, Chang'e-7, and Chang'e-8 vehicles to the Moon. The aim of the first lunar missions is to test basic technologies that will make it possible to start building a remotely controlled complex of experimental research facilities. The first exploratory vehicle under the project is slated to launch in 2026, with the project to be completed in 2028. The two countries plan to cooperate in the future on the Chinese "Chang'e-7" and Russian "Luna 27" missions, which aim to explore the south pole of the moon. 

Between 2026 and 2030, Russia and China plan to send two lunar missions aimed at testing the technology of landing on the moon’s surface and transporting samples of moon rocks to Earth. Towards 2031-2035, both countries plan to deploy infrastructure in the moon's orbit and on its surface, which includes transferring the necessary equipment to provide electrical energy and conduct scientific research. According to the road map, the project will also include two scientific and technical rovers and a jumping robot, as well as two small smart rovers dedicated to studying the surface of the moon.

Moreover, in November 2022, the two countries signed an agreement to integrate the Russian “Glonass” and Chinese “Beidou” space navigation systems. The following month, in December 2022, the Russian space corporation "Roscosmos" and the Chinese National Space Administration signed a cooperation program for the years 2023-2027. The agreement stipulates the establishment of three Russian space navigation stations in the Chinese cities of Changzhong, Urumqi, and Shanghai, and three  Chinese stations in the Russian cities of Obninsk, Irkutsk, and Petrotlovsk-Kamchatsky.

A Lasting Partnership

The Ukrainian crisis has both tested and deepened the mutual trust and reliability between Russia and China. It has also opened up new opportunities for cooperation in various fields. Escalating confrontations between Washington and Beijing at the economic and strategic levels over a wide range of bilateral, regional, and international issues has coincided with the unprecedented deterioration in American-Russian relations, putting Moscow and Beijing in the same trench. However, the growing partnership between Russia and China is not obligatory in response to the American challenge. Instead, it is a deliberate decision based on mutual interests, which include countering threats from the United States. This partnership reflects the shared desire of both countries for a long-term strategic vision and serves as a reliable and consistent orientation for their future.

Tipping the Balance

The current stability and consistency between Moscow and China as the two plan their future ambitions in space together is not without consequence, given how it would impact the American-Russian space cooperation that has lasted for a quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War, during which they established the "International Space Station." This heralds a growing escalation between the United States and both Russia and China, as Washington has accused Moscow and Beijing of deploying satellites in close proximity to others for intelligence gathering, developing anti-satellite technologies such as laser weapons that can blind other space devices, and engaging in deliberate electronic jamming. 

The US Congress has pressured the White House to take tough action against what it considered “dangerous ties” between Russia’s “Rosatom” and the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation. In December 2022, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill that provides additional measures to compete with Russia and China in the nuclear market, and that reduces the growing influence of Russia and China in the international arena of nuclear energy exports.

Moreover, American defense officials are also concerned about the Chinese “CFR-600” reactor which they believe is prepared to play a pivotal role in increasing the Chinese warheads stockpile from 400 to 1,500 by 2035. China, however, rebuffed American concerns and confirmed that it fulfills its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It further added that it voluntarily submitted its report on the civilian part of its nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Beijing believes that the United States is exaggerating "China's nuclear threat" as an argument for expanding its strategic arsenal, while the latter maintains a defensive policy and would not be the first to use nuclear weapons.

As the Russian-Chinese partnership develops and expands, the tension between Washington and both Moscow and Beijing extends into the realms of space, which is ​​becoming a key battleground for future competition and polarization among major powers, resembling a "space cold war."