BRICS+ from Above: Why the Space Dimension of the Expanded Alliance Matters

Up until last August, there was little to link Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since the decision to invite new members to the BRICS alliance, analysts have been wondering what this set of countries have in common. While at vastly different stages of economic development, the 11 will often adopt the moniker of members of the loosely defined “Global South.” However, where most see an amorphous grouping of countries—some formal U.S. allies and others traditional anti-Western autocracies—all have space programs and ambitions. This should not be overlooked in a context where the recent BRICS expansion can be seen as a largely symbolic move.

If all invited countries officially join BRICS, new collaborative space projects among its members are certainly possible. However, the more significant impact of the expansion may be in the space governance domain. Space governance refers to the complex set of laws, regulations, and frameworks that govern the use of space at both the international and national level. It is inherently a foreign policy issue because space is not owned by any one country and the physics of space requires international coordination. BRICS members have vowed to leverage their expected heftier weight in international institutions to better address the needs of the Global South. This counterweight strategy may spill over to the space-related discussions underway in those very forums, such as on international space security in the UN First Committee. While not topping the list of priorities dominated by economic issues, space governance is important—at stake are how to manage collective challenges like space debris and whether the next wave of space exploration will take an adversarial turn.

From Sputnik-1 to Chandrayaan-3

Space activities are deeply embedded into nearly every aspect of society—powering critical infrastructure like telecommunications, underpinning global financial transactions, fueling climate change research, and enabling asymmetric advantage in the military domain. Both as a power projection tool and a strategic investment to advance national goals, for countries around the world, space investments are no longer optional.

There is extensive debate around the complicated question of how to categorize national space programs without imposing technological biases. Regardless of what framework is used, the space programs of the BRICS+ countries (referring to existing and invited members) span the gamut—from Russia’s, responsible for the 1957 milestone that kicked off the Space Race, to Ethiopia’s, whose early efforts date to the same era but did not involve satellite operations until 2019. It is impossible to give justice to the breadth of these programs in a few words, but even cherry-picking some highlights shows the permanence of space efforts.

Despite dwindling investment in its space program, Russia remains a major launching state, and, along with the United States, a primary operator of the International Space Station. China operates Tiangong, the other permanently crewed station in orbit, and with its Long March rockets, came second in total launches in 2022. India’s program also encompasses human spaceflight, launch, and satellite development and operation, and recently achieved the first-ever landing to the coveted lunar south pole with Chandrayaan-3.

Brazil and Argentina have also had major space efforts for decades, with fits and starts. Brazil’s features an extensive joint Earth observation program with China and the advantageously located Alcântara spaceport. Argentina has successfully developed indigenous satellites and continues to invest in a homegrown rocket, Tronador—albeit at a glacial pace amid recurring financial crises.

Rounding out the BRICS+ group are the relative newcomers—that is, from a programmatic standpoint. (The seeds of space exploration in the Middle East can arguably be traced back to ancient astronomy.) After becoming the first Arab nation to send a probe to Mars, the UAE recently logged the longest time in space by an Arab astronaut. Saudi prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, the first Arab in space, is a supporter of the Saudi space program, which has also made human spaceflight a focus. South Africa is a leader in radio astronomy and hosts the only operational regional entity dedicated to space weather, intense solar activity that can impact infrastructure in space and on the ground. Egypt, in addition to hosting the newly unveiled African Space Agency, recently revamped its space agency. So did Ethiopia, which began constructing a satellite manufacturing facility in 2020. Finally, there is Iran, whose efforts center around a demonstrated launch capability and satellite development with strong ties to its military industrial complex.

While scope and emphasis vary widely, many of the BRICS+ members have used space activities to deepen relationships with like-minded countries and to demonstrate autonomy on the global scale.

Space on the Agenda?

It would not be a surprise for space to feature on the BRICS+ agenda. In May 2022, China “officially launched” the BRICS Joint Committee on Space Cooperation, intended to enable remote sensing satellite data sharing from six operating satellites. Announced in 2021, the kickoff was seen as a response to the satellite collaboration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (an informal alliance among the United States, Australia, India, and Japan) focused on maritime domain awareness.

During the recent summit, and just before the historic lunar landing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested a “BRICS space exploration consortium” during remarks at the summit.

Russia and China regularly make space-related collaboration offers to countries of the Global South, such as Venezuela, emphasizing political alignment with those partners. Even when not followed by immediate concrete developments, these announcements make headlines for the soft power value of space.

The vast gap between the space programs of its members makes it unlikely that BRICS+ will materialize into significant multilateral projects. The CIA World Factbook, newly updated to include national space program details, estimates China’s 2022 space spending in the range of $3–10 billion. The extremely limited spending in Ethiopia and Egypt, in turn, is largely fueled by China itself.

Nevertheless, the BRICS+ label could boost ongoing bilateral and “minilateral initiatives,” such as the China-led International Lunar Research Station Cooperation project to establish a permanent lunar base. South Africa formally signed on to this project on the heels of the BRICS+ summit. Targeted efforts may emerge among a subset of members in areas of shared interest, like Earth observation and geospatial information, a priority for both Argentina and the UAE.

The more salient shift from BRICS+, however, may manifest as shifting alliances in the ongoing space governance discussions taking place within and on the sidelines of the very forums the bloc wants to overhaul.

Setting the Tone

All BRICS+ countries are members of the UN Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, a central setting for space governance since the beginning of the Cold War. It was there that the international community—led by the Soviet Union and the United States as the sole space powers—agreed to the four treaties that set the foundational principles for space activities to this day. While space is decidedly not a Wild West, the adoption of new binding measures has slowed to a standstill in the last few decades. Space developments, in the meantime, have raced ahead.

The urgency for new space norms is increasing. Whether in increasingly congested orbits or the resource-rich lunar south pole, conflict will arise in the not-so-limitless domain of space. The space community contains a disparate set of actors with sometimes conflicting interests, largely targeting the same locations. Major space players are vying for influence to define the new rules that will shape future activities. Emerging space nations also take part with fervor, looking to ensure their interests—whether the ability to access space-derived data today or to launch satellites tomorrow—are protected.

In the polycentric space system, where the spheres of influence are occupied by multiple countries and nonstate actors alike, a diverse global community tackles governance issues in multiple environments, at the United Nations and beyond. These discussions include both binding mechanisms like national legislation and regulation, as well as non-binding ones, like best practices and guidelines. This dynamic is a driving assumption in the first U.S. Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy released last May. The framework articulates a State Department-led effort to advance U.S. space leadership through international cooperation and the promotion of U.S. norms and policies—across all forums—to govern the responsible use of space.

This is where the BRICS+ expansion may have tangible consequences on space governance, especially considering China’s interests in marshalling the voting power of emerging countries in organizations like the United Nations. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume country positions on space governance will fall within a simple North-South divide.

Hedging on Space

Just last month Russia successfully prevented the Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats (OEWG), convened by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and chaired by a Chilean diplomat, from issuing a consensus report, the product of a two-year effort, to consider norms for military space activities. In a written statement, Russia described the draft report describing the OEWG’s work as “unbalanced” and “reflecting mainly Western approaches,” and described “responsible behavior” as a “non-consensual term” despite it being one around which the international community has been rallying for the last few years. This view, supported by BRICS+ allies Iran and China, was, however, not endorsed by others in the bloc that also participated in the process. Brazil and Argentina joined a majority of 39 nations in pushing for an informal summary to be provided to the UNGA so that the group’s progress would not be lost.

While China and Russia tend to align on space governance discussions, developments on a related front further suggest the rest of the BRICS+ may not just fall in line. Last December the UNGA took up a resolution calling on countries to not conduct tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapons—involving a missile launch to intentionally disable or destroy a satellite in orbit—given the significant debris generated by such tests. Sponsored by the United States, the resolution mirrored the landmark U.S. moratorium, which multiple countries, including the European Union, have also adhered to. While China, Iran, and Russia all voted against the resolution, Egypt and the rest of the BRICS+ members voted in favor. India, the latest to conduct a DA-ASAT test, abstained.

Ironically, it is the expansion of BRICS+ that reduces the risk of this alliance automatically turning anti-Western in space governance issues. Five of the countries—Brazil, India, and newcomers Argentina, UAE and Saudi Arabia—have signed on to the Artemis Accords. The accords are a nonbinding political commitment to key principles in the conduct of space activities, intended to guide space exploration to the moon and beyond. While largely seen as the U.S. answer to the slow progress in international space governance efforts, the accords have been signed by 29 countries, including Bahrain, Nigeria, and Rwanda, which are not particularly strong U.S. allies.

The accords reinforce principles contained in the core space treaties—like transparency and emergency assistance—while adding others that have been widely adopted since then and that the United States prioritizes, like scientific data sharing. The accords are central to U.S. strategy to build a global coalition around democratic principles and values, which it sees as key to ensuring growing civil, military, and commercial interests in space are not threatened. As noted in the Space Diplomacy Framework, the United States “will compete where necessary against countries that seek to impose a different view of outer space governance.”

While signing on to the accords does not itself lead to participating in the NASA-led Artemis program to return humans to the lunar surface, the United States has made it clear the principles contained therein are fundamental to any meaningful collaboration. Six months after signing the Artemis Accords, Saudi Arabia withdrew from the Moon Treaty, a UN space law treaty not ratified by any of the major space powers and thus not considered part of the foundational agreements regulating space. The unexplained withdrawal was not a requirement to adopt the accords but was seen as symbolic gesture to resolve disagreement between the two documents.

The steady progress to increase accords signatories seems to indicate this is resonating. China and Russia may thus find it challenging to sway some of the BRICS+ members to their view of things. For the BRICS+ nations with larger space programs, such as Argentina or the UAE, the win-win scenario is one where partnerships with many established space programs remain viable. The hedging strategy that is core to Brazil’s foreign policy may show up just as strongly in space debates.

The United States and its allies can leverage this to continue courting other space nations—even those politically aligned with Russia and China—to continue building momentum around space norms. In advocating for the Accords, the United States should also encourage countries to adopt the core treaties to further the “rules-based order” for space. Ethiopia and Egypt, for example, have yet to ratify the 1975 Registration Convention, which stipulates the registration of space objects in a public registry.

It would be a mistake, however, for the United States and its allies to depend solely on alignment of values like sustainability and stewardship. China’s partnerships with emerging space nations are bolstered by whole-of-government efforts, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, where scientific collaboration is often paired with infrastructure investments, loans, and other measures that meet multiple goals of the partner. Because of this, China and Russia may be successful in rallying votes—or opposition—from BRICS+ countries with small, resource-constrained space programs. For countries like Egypt and Ethiopia, the short-term gains of siding with China and Russia in space governance decisions may trump the intangible benefit of what may one day be participation in the Artemis program. While not true for all fronts in the space governance landscape, every vote counts in the United Nations, and the United States and its allies should not disregard this interplay of shifting economic-political alliances.

The United States should go all in on implementing its space diplomacy framework. With space technologies tied to priorities like climate change, this means bringing in space governance to all engagements with potential partners—whether space-focused or not. While the BRICS+ expansion does not mean space governance attitudes will fall along North-South lines, China and Russia know very well how to incorporate space into broader engagement efforts, making it an attractive carrot in a strategic bargaining pitch. If BRICS+ is seen by some as a largely symbolic alliance, few issues are a better fit than space where discussions often involve ideological appeals. But leadership in space governance matters to the United States and in this environment shifting alliances like BRICS+ afford U.S. adversaries another avenue to bolster the opposition.

Laura Delgado López is a visiting fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow.