Features | Security | East Asia

Asian Space Race

India’s launch in late October 2008 of its first lunar mission marked its ascendancy to an elite group of nations.

As India, China, Japan and South Korea chase the economic and strategic benefits of cosmic exploration, Jason Miks asks whether a new Asia-centric space race is looming

India’s launch in late October 2008 of its first lunar mission marked its ascendancy to an elite group of nations. And by joining China, the European Space Agency, Japan, Russia and the United States as the only countries to have sent a mission to the moon, India’s actions lend weight to the claims that Asia will be the location of the next space race.

‘I think there is an Asian space race, though it is not primarily a military race,’ says James Clay Moltz, associate professor of National Security Affairs at the USA’s Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California. ‘I think it’s significant that India has decided to invest in a major expansion of its space science programme. It shows it has recognised that for the scientific value, the prestige value and for pushing their knowledge base forward, they need to have a space science programme.’

India is ramping up spending on its space programme, and although its $861 million* budget for 2008-9 is small compared with NASA’s $17.3 billion for this fiscal year, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) 11th Plan (2007-12) still envisages an approximate three-fold funding increase over this five-year period.

Such investment is already paying off, with ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle successfully launching a world-record 10 satellites at one time in April, including eight nanosatellites for international customers. Similarly, its Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission boasts six international payloads, including ESA X-ray and infrared spectrometers for mapping the moon’s surface and exploring for mineral resources.

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The Indian launch came two months after Japan saw its new Basic Space Law come into force, legislation aimed both at laying out a clear strategy for improving Japan’s defence capabilities and bolstering the country’s commercial space competitiveness.

‘The new law was unique because it was initiated by politicians,’ says Kazuto Suzuki, a space policy expert and Associate Professor of International Political Economy at Japan’s Hokkaido University. ‘It’s the first time in 40 years that Japanese politicians have been engaged in space politics.’

As part of its 2025 vision, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), backed up by a $1.87 billion budget, has an ambitious agenda to turn Japan into ‘the world’s leading science centre’ through space observation and asteroid exploration.

Suzuki, who advised the policymakers while the Basic Space Law was being developed, acknowledges that Japan’s agenda is being driven in part by a need to respond to other regional space programmes. However, he plays down the impact of China’s headline-grabbing manned programme, which included Zhai Zhigang’s flag-waving spacewalk, the first by a Chinese national, in September 2008.

‘[The manned programme] has relatively few implications from a military point of view, and from a politician’s point of view, it is about national pride,’ Suzuki says. ‘I think Japanese politicians were keen on the Chinese way of using space as a diplomatic tool – both countries are keen on finding ways to secure resources,’ he adds, noting that China has helped a number of resource-rich countries, including Venezuela, with their space efforts.

Japan heads spaceward despite record national debt

However, Suzuki believes Japan’s efforts to compete with other nations could be hampered by the tight fiscal situation the country faces – according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Japanese government’s debt reached around 180 per cent of GDP in 2007, the highest level ever recorded in the OECD area.

Kazuto Suzuki also believes Japan will have to focus on developing a disciplined programme that is less about continuously ‘challenging new technologies’ and more about consolidating technological advances and finding commercial applications for them.

‘The new space programme needs justification – to show that it is useful for something else,’ he says. ‘This needs the involvement of users.’

William Martel, Associate Professor of International Security Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Massachusetts, confirms that countries embarking on space programmes can reap unintended commercial benefits.

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‘An interesting example is the GPS [global positioning system] programme,’ he says. ‘That was begun as a military navigation programme, and it is now the backbone of every email, Internet and financial transaction on a global scale. That’s an unanticipated technological benefit from a space programme. They can provide focus for states and a way to energise what they’re doing.’

Suzuki believes focusing on users could provide a useful boost to Japan’s commercial sector, especially its satellite industry. ‘The source of the satellite industry’s revenue was based on the national R&D [research and development] budget,’ he says. ‘If the space law functions as it is expected, the satellite industry would enhance its chances to find new customers, particularly defence-related customers,’ he adds, citing Mitsubishi Electric, the nation’s largest satellite company, as the biggest likely beneficiary.

However, Suzuki also acknowledges that defensive considerations have a significant role to play in the Japanese space programme. ‘The security issue is related not to China, but to North Korea,’ he says, though he notes that Japanese politicians were concerned by Chinese application programmes such as spy satellites and its successful test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile in January 2007, when China managed to successfully shoot down one of its own weather satellites.

Japanese fears were highlighted in March 2008 when the Japanese government-backed think tank, the National Institute for Defence Studies, warned that China will likely continue to engage in space development as a way to achieve military competitiveness with the United States.

Although concrete budgetary information about China’s programme is scarce – estimates on China’s annual spending range between $1 billion and $3 billion – the country has outlined an ambitious agenda, including plans for a space station by 2020.

Joan Johnson-Freese, Chair of the Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in the United States, says concerns about Chinese investment in its space programme are understandable.

‘Given that 95 per cent of space technology is dual-use, meaning that it has value to both military and civilian communities, and the dramatic and impressive progress that China has made with its space programme over the past five to seven years, it is understandable that there has been concern about the intentions of the Chinese in space,’ she says.

Authoritarianism and state secrecy obscure China’s decisions

Such worries are not helped by a lack of transparency. ‘There is more transparency in Chinese media as well,’ she says. ‘But in terms of insight into their decision-making process, things remain largely opaque. Part of it is cultural, part of it is the result of an authoritarian government, part of it is because of ambiguous state secrecy laws, which [make] opaqueness the prudent path for individuals.’

But Eric Hagt, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, says that although concerns over possible military applications are not entirely misplaced, they are often exaggerated and hyped.

‘China has made it clear, at least in its official talk, that [its space programme] is really a strategic asset in the broadest sense of the term,’ Hagt says. ‘Military use is a subset of that, but it is exactly that – a subset.’

Instead, Hagt sees one of the prime motivations of Chinese investment in space as its potential for internal consumption. ‘One of the most important goals is internal political legitimacy, because the government can show that kind of organisation and mobilisation of human and material resources to accomplish what they have, is really impressive,’ he says.

‘China is working [on ASAT] as a hedge, against the United States primarily,’ Hagt says. ‘But the real money is going into the manned space programme and even more so into this whole suite of satellite applications – communications, remote sensing, position navigation, microsatellites… This is where the story really is, not the ASAT programme.’

And Moltz says further tests like the kind seen in 2007 are unlikely. ‘I think there has been a learning process within China that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable to the international community and that in the long run it will hurt their interests,’ he says.

Strategic fears of ASAT missiles aside, Moltz believes such tests also pose risks to space exploration in the form of space debris. ‘It’s a very serious problem,’ he argues. ‘Destructive testing is a harmful activity for all countries… There are going to be serious problems if countries continue.’

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But with South Korea also outlining its own space ambitions – it plans to build a rocket that will allow it to send a satellite to the moon by 2020, Moltz says the international community needs to organise itself better if it is to make the growing interest in space work for everyone.

‘There’s going to have to be a much greater level of coordination… we’ll end up in a more conflict-ridden situation in space if we don’t take better efforts to manage problems,’ he says.

Martel says such coordination may well have to involve some sort of international agreement or body to thrash out ‘rules of the road’.

‘The danger with space is that societies in a strategic-military sense put a very heavy reliance on space communications, space imaging, space navigation, space sensing,’ he says. ‘These are sovereign national territory, and interfering with a satellite could be interpreted as an act of war.’

*All prices are in US dollars.



8 October, 1956 – China establishes the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defence, the nation’s first centre for the development of ballistic missiles.

April 1958 – Construction of China’s first rocket launch centre begins.

24 April, 1970 – China becomes fifth country to successfully launch a satellite when Dong Fang Hong-1 lifts off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia.

1979 – Yuan Wang No 1, China’s first ocean-going tracking vessel, is launched.

1988 – Ministry of Aerospace formed.

October 1990 – The nation launches its first space research mission with animals on board.

15 October, 2003 – With Shenzhou-5, China becomes only the third independent country to carry out manned space flight.

September 2007 – People’s Liberation Army Air Force Colonel Zhai Zhigang walks in space.

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July 1955 – National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL) established.

July 1969 – Approval of law establishing the National Space Development Agency of Japan passed by the 61st session of the National Diet.

February 1970 – A L-4S-5 rocket launched, successfully putting Japan’s first artificial satellite, Osumi, into orbit.

April 1981 – Institute of Space and Astronautical Science founded.

July 1998 – Mars Orbiter Nozomi (Planet-B) launched by an M-V-3 rocket.

October 2003 – Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) established, merging the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, the National Aerospace Laboratory, and the National Space Development Agency of Japan.

December 2005 – First-ever optical inter-satellite communication takes place between Japan’s Optical Inter-orbit Communications Engineering Test Satellite (OICETS), Kirari, and the European Space Agency’s Advanced Relay and Technology Mission, Artemis.


21 November, 1963 – First sounding rocket (research rocket) is launched from Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) at Thumba, a fishing village in Kerala.

1967 – Satellite Telecommunication Earth Station set up at Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat.

15 August, 1969 – Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) formed under the Department of Atomic Energy.

19 April, 1975 – ISRO’s first Indian Satellite, Aryabhata, launched.

17 March, 1988 – Launch of first operational Indian Remote Sensing Satellite, IRS-1A.

28 April, 2008 – PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle)-C9 successfully launches CARTOSAT-2A and IMS-1 (both Earth observation satellites), and eight foreign nanosatellites from Sriharikota Island off the state of Andhra Pradesh.

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23 October, 2008 – Chandrayaan-1 moon mission launched by the ISRO.

Sources: China National Space Administration, Indian Space Research Organisation, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.