During the Cold War, achievements in outer space were viewed as demonstrations of power and ideological reputation. For instance, when the Soviet Union broadcast its technological competence by launching the first ever man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the world stood up and took notice. The United States followed suit with its Apollo program and achieved mankind’s first moon landing in 1969. Winning the race to be first somewhere in outer space mattered a great deal then.
Since then, however, dynamics have changed. Today, countries like India and China link their outer space programs not to achieving global “firsts” but to their advancing their economic development and wielding diplomatic influence here on Earth. For instance, Chinese President Xi Jinping believes that China’s investment in outer space will enhance scientific innovation, boost creative entrepreneurial success, and create long-term prosperity for the Chinese nation. With this in mind, China is encouraging private outer space start-ups like Landspace and Onespace to enter the lucrative commercial market of outer space launches.
India, another major Asian space power, is also encouraging privatization of its space program. In a substantial move, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman A S Kiran Kumar stated in February 2016 that ISRO will privatize its flagship Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) by 2020 in order to expand technological capability and increase launches from 12 to 18 annually.
As China and India steers their space programs toward commercialization, they are also increasingly using outer space for regional diplomacy. Diplomacy is defined as “the established method of influencing the decisions and behavior of foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence.” Both India and China are utilizing their advanced space programs to offer services to countries in their strategic neighborhoods, with the foreign policy goal of developing both influence and goodwill.
At the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit held in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s plan to launch a SAARC satellite in the next two years. The satellite would offer communication services, free of charge, to SAARC nations (excluding Pakistan, who opted out). On May 6, ISRO sent into space the 2,230-kg GSAT-9 satellite, named “South Asia satellite,” launched on the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle GSLV-F09. With this launch, SAARC nations, to include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, can now utilize broadcast services like direct TV, tele-medicine, and augment banking networks. The impact of this Indian outer-space diplomacy was immediate with all six SAARC nations’ leaders — namely Ashraf Ghani (president of Afghanistan); Sheikh Hasina (prime minister of Bangladesh); Tshering Tobgay (prime minister of Bhutan); Abdulla Yameen (president of Maldives); Pushpa Kamal Dahal (prime minister of Nepal) and Maithripala Sirisena (president of Sri Lanka) joining in by video-conference to watch the launch with Modi. All the leaders stressed the need to further develop such regional cooperation. Significantly, this is New Delhi’s first outer space-based neighborhood diplomacy, with India utilizing its advanced space technology to provide transponder services to its neighbors.
China is starting to employ outer space diplomacy for regional cooperation as well. In its 2016 white paper on space, China stated that:
“[W]ith sustained efforts in building the Beidou global system, we plan to start providing basic services to countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in 2018, form a network consisting of 35 satellites for global services by 2020, and provide all clients with more accurate and more reliable services through advancing the ground-based and satellite-based augmentation systems in an integrated way.”
Consequently, very similar to India’s efforts at neighborhood diplomacy, China aims to utilize its outer space program for regional diplomatic ends, to enhance both diplomatic influence and future commercial avenues. The Belt and Road referenced in the white paper are propelled by a range of funding sources including the $40 billion Silk Road Fund and its $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). On May 14 and 15, China is hosting the first of Belt and Road Forum, one of the biggest international initiatives by China with leaders from 29 countries attending, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. As the white paper makes clear, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative also includes the diplomatic potential of sharing China’s outer space assets with participating countries.
China has already helped both Pakistan and Sri Lanka launch communication satellites and is in talks with Maldives, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Nepal on future satellite launches. Bangladesh is launching its own satellite, Bangabandhu-1, working in collaboration with a European space agency. Clearly, India and China are both aiming to utilize their growing expertise in outer space as a mechanism to enhance their diplomatic reach and display their regional largesse. India, aware of China’s space cooperation with South Asian nations, perhaps offered the “South Asia satellite”as a cost-effective alternative. A similar outer space initiative has not yet been launched by India with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, but it is a likely possibility given ISRO’s growing focus on privatization and commercialization of its outer space activities.
China’s OBOR initiative, backed by its enormous economic clout and offer of communication satellites to OBOR countries, is an alternative to India’s space diplomacy. Consequently, the outer space domain is starting to get competitive, both diplomatically and technologically. China and India already have their differences with regard to the OBOR initiative, as it passes through areas in Pakistan that are also claimed by India. While Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed India’s concerns, stating that OBOR has no connection to the dispute, it is noticeable that India is not sending an official delegation to the OBOR forum this weekend.
The race for regional diplomatic influence between India and China, utilizing their outer space capabilities, has only just started. The race is no longer about who gets where first; this new space race is more about who can offer cost-effective space technology for future commercial benefits and shore up diplomatic influence back here on Earth. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all, if it results in generosity and commercial benefits, both for the offerer and the offeree.