Unlike our explorer ancestors, we divorced exploration from exploitation.
It's not for lack of trying. It's that there can't be a race when Obama has scrapped the space program so that Elon Musk can find another way to cash in besides Tesla's subsidized electric cars.
China is interested in the moon. India is interested in the moon. The United States is interested in Obama.
Glenn Reynolds wonders in the pages of USA Today whether China might want to make a territorial claim on the moon. The answer is probably. China is practical and if it takes the time to go to the moon, it's going to try and do something useful while there.
October Sky author Homer Hickam was more excited. He wondered on Twitter if China might want to make a territorial claim on the moon, noting that the area the lander is exploring may contain an abundance of Helium-3, a potentially valuable fusion energy fuel that is found only on the moon. According to former astronaut/geologist Harrison Schmitt, China "has made no secret" of its interest in Helium-3. Schmitt observes, "I would assume that this mission is both a geopolitical statement and a test of some hardware and software related to mining and processing of the lunar regolith."
Followed by a mining claim, perhaps. Is that possible? Well, China seems pretty big on making territorial claims lately. And, really, there's not a lot to stop them.
First, the treaty only prohibits "national appropriation." If a Chinese company, instead of the Chinese government, were to stake a claim, it wouldn't apply. And, at any rate, China -- which didn't even join the treaty until 1983 -- can, like any other nation, withdraw at any time. All that's required under the treaty is to give a year's notice.
Glenn is optimistic that American companies will follow. But China isn't doing anything that we couldn't have done for decades. We've chosen not to have any long range plan for exploiting the moon. We've even crippled our deep sea mining by allowing the UN to claim profits from it.
Nor do we have a long range plan for the solar system or even for getting to orbit. We're satisfied with privatizing what was already a faint shadow of the golden age of space exploration, launching satellites and ferrying the occasional billionaire space tourist for a few days of blowing his nose in weightlessness, and tossing what's left of the NASA industrial contractor network a bone with an occasional robot probe.
It's a safe bet that China has a long term plan. We don't.
Maybe Chinese exploration and exploitation will shake loose a Sputnik event. But that doesn't seem likely right now. The deeper problem is that unlike our explorer ancestors, we divorced exploration from exploitation.
That was a fatal idealistic mistake that doomed the whole enterprise. It's not a mistake that China is likely to make.