Space technology has great potential to help social and economic development, especially in parts of the developing world such as South Asia. Yet, South Asia has not fully exploited the space domain for several reasons. Availability of resources and lack of visionary leadership in the region are important factors, but so are international insecurity and conflict. While there are limitations in dealing with the former set of issues, it is possible to suggest some ways to deal with the latter set.
In particular, confidence building measures (CBMs) can help promote space development in South Asia. This has been a theme of many workshops and seminars in the last couple of years. The author has participated in several such engagements where representatives of some of the smaller countries in the region have shown pronounced interest in international collaboration in developing outer space assets and technologies for meeting developmental challenges. But these countries also feel they are caught in the accelerating competition between India and China, which spills over into this domain too.
There is little doubt about the demand side: South Asia is a region with uneven development and serious social, economic, and developmental challenges. Space technology capabilities are also unevenly spread with China and India as established space players in the region but with more new entrants in the field. Countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives have a clear requirement for space capabilities for a number of different utilities such as dealing with natural disasters and communication. The region has remained prone to many weather-related calamities on a fairly frequent basis, making disaster warning and mitigation important drivers for pursuing an outer space agenda.
Strengthening connectivity, communication, and broadband internet across rural and remote areas of the region too should be strong imperatives. India and China can offer significant assistance to these new entrants. But at the same time, smaller countries worry about being dragged into the Sino-Indian competition if they collaborate with one side or the other.
Another factor to keep in mind is the poverty of existing rules and norms for outer space. Treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty (OST) are increasingly inadequate to deal with the rapidly developing space sector. This has resulted in a growing debate about how to strengthen space norms and rules to ensure safe and sustainable use of outer space for future generations.
But in developing new rules, care must be taken to ensure that, without restricting legitimate cooperation between states in outer space, there are adequate safeguards to prevent completely unregulated outer space cooperation that could lead to greater insecurities for some or all. Among the smaller countries, Sri Lanka has taken active interest in the past and in going forward with such efforts.
More international cooperation and coordination is definitely needed. In the Indo-Pacific region, there are two major regional space cooperation initiatives, one each under Japan’s and China’s leadership. Most South Asian countries are members of the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) that is governed by Japan. Pakistan and Bangladesh are members of both the APRSAF and Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), the Chinese initiative in the region.
Yet, the big lacuna is that these two initiatives do not collaborate in any manner whatsoever. The limited resources of the many new space players could be more judiciously used if there were a means to get the two initiatives to work together. For example, there could be joint initiatives in the area of manufacturing and launching satellites for the purpose of providing advance weather-related disaster warning.
More significantly, space cooperation at the regional level has to focus on more basic needs. Regional powers can join hands in providing sounding rockets, to start with, and weather satellites, for instance. Areas such as disaster warning and mitigation are ideal candidates for cooperation within the South and Southeast Asian regions.
But there is also potential for cooperation at the higher end of the spectrum. Strengthening cooperation in Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and enhancing SSA coverage in the southern hemisphere can be an important aspect of cooperation among the more capable space powers in the region. India, China, and Japan have their own limited capabilities to monitor the space environment. Combining the efforts of these three large spacefaring powers in Asia would be greatly beneficial. And if the bigger space players in Asia could find ways to cooperate, it would provide incentives to smaller states as well.