There are also strong signs that the United States could establish its own base first. NASA’s Artemis project envisions returning humans to the moon by 2024. It plans to build a permanent orbiting lunar base, Gateway, as part of this project as well. Eight nations, including the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan and the United Arab Emirates, have agreed to partner in this effort. The Russo-Chinese declaration could be as much a propaganda effort to counteract the U.S.-led consortium as it is a serious cooperative venture.
But that itself is a worrying sign. Russia and China have been pulling together for most of the past decade in an increasingly tight embrace. Russia sells to China, its onetime rival, advanced military weaponry, which in many cases is still superior to Chinese-made technology. The two nations’ militaries have conducted joint military exercises, including a tripartite exercise with Iran in the Indian Ocean last month. Russian President Vladimir Putin even refused to rule out a formal military alliance with China in the future.
The emergence of a Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis should worry President Biden. This grouping has a global reach that could simultaneously threaten U.S. interests worldwide. Imagine a scenario in which Russian-backed forces undermine nearby NATO countries just as Iranian proxies threaten Israel or Arab states in the Persian Gulf and China menaces Taiwan or nations that object to its claims in the South China Sea. The United States often has a difficult time managing one crisis; what would happen if it had to manage three or four at one time?
This challenge is the most important Biden must face. He could choose to treat the malign axis as a fait accompli and seek to confront it with increased U.S. strength and a firm, global alliance structure that is also committed to this goal. He could seek to divide the axis by wooing Russia away from its tilt toward China, but that inevitably would require giving Russia things it values such as domination of Ukraine or perhaps even removal of NATO forces from our Baltic allies. Or he could choose to largely ignore the warning signs, papering over the seriousness of the challenge with words that aren’t backed up with increased U.S. capabilities.
The signs thus far are mixed. Biden has told European allies that “America is back,” but it remains to be seen what that means with reference to the U.S. posture towards Russia. In the Middle East, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also looks to be trying to have it both ways, telling Israel that the United States supports its security needs while also exploring ways to get Iran to reenter the Obama-era nuclear agreement that Israel vehemently opposes. Biden’s Asia policies have been somewhat more forthright, as the administration has soothed relations with South Korea by settling a Trump-era dispute over how much our ally pays for U.S. bases there. The United States also participated this week in the first meeting with India, Japan and Australia — known together as “the Quad.” China hawks hope this turns into a robust alliance to resist Chinese expansion.
None of these initiatives will matter, however, if the United States doesn’t start to reinvest in national security and space. Despite budget increases during the Trump administration, U.S. defense spending remains close to a post-1960 low as a percentage of GDP. That’s simply not enough given the global commitments and interests of the United States. NASA’s budget has also shrunk over the years. It now spends less than half in constant dollar terms than it did during the 1960s when the Apollo project was in full flight. The United States cannot confront a Beijing-led axis without significant increases in both budgets.
China’s first Earth satellite broadcast the Mao-era anthem “The East is Red” to the world. Let’s hope a Sino-Russian lunar research station won’t be confidently singing a similar tune.