Indian Space Diplomacy Gathers Momentum
Narendra Modi is perhaps the first Indian Prime Minister to have vigorously espoused space diplomacy as an instrument to expand Indian diplomatic clout and soft power as well as further its geo strategic interests in the third world. With China rapidly consolidating its position in many of the third world countries as a most sought after high tech partner for making available space services and satellite systems on highly affordable terms, India cannot afford to lag behind in taking its expertise in space technology for the benefit of the third world countries. For India’s space programme has now matured sufficiently enough to provide space solutions specific to the problems of the third world countries. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has created a record of pulling off of more than 100 space missions including probes to the Moon and Mars. With such an impressive credentials, India can reach out to the third world countries including its immediate neighbours with its space expertise custom made to tackle the problems of poverty and backwardness.
Indeed, it was the lack of heavy lift space launchers that had earlier prevented India from competing with China for the satellite projects unveiled by the third world countries. However, now with the three stage GSLV-MKII almost close to entering the operational phase and the high performance GSLV-MKIII getting ready for its maiden flight by end 2016, India not find it difficult to bid for domestic satellite projects of the third world countries in the near future. By deploying these two space vehicles, India will be in a position to launch a range of communications satellites in the weight class spanning 2-tonne to 4-tonne. The currently operational four stage, Indian space workhorse, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle(PSLV) has a limited capability for missions to near earth and middle earth orbits.
Indeed, reaching out to the neighbours with the expertise in space technology has become a new, vibrant mantra of the space diplomacy projected by the ruling dispensation in New Delhi. For instance, the SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) regional satellite system ,the development of which is being spearheaded by the Indian space agency, is being cited as an excellent example of the Indian policy of strengthening relations with the immediate neighbour. Modi has described the SAARC satellite, which is planned to be launched by 2016- end, as being helpful to the South Asian countries in India’s neighbourhood for fighting poverty and illiteracy, scientific advancement and open up the opportunities for the youths of these countries. The SAARC satellite could be used for strengthening communications and broadcasting, spreading literacy and assisting in the developmental process in addition to providing advance warning on natural disasters.
On another front, Modi has also asked ISRO to explore the possibility of expanding the footprints of India’s home-grown seven satellite navigation system, IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System) the last and seventh satellite of which is due for launch soon ,to the neighbouring countries. The IRNSS, which will free India from its dependence on commercial navigation satellite services, has a range of civilian applications including in supporting mobile communications, mapping and survey, mining and power projects, search and rescue operations, surface and marine transportation, air traffic management and landscape planning.
Offer to Bangladesh
Not surprisingly, India has now offered Bangladesh its expertise to build and launch its domestic satellites. It is but in the fitness of things that India, which had played a played a stellar role in the creation of an independent Bangladesh, is keen to be a partner in the “space success story” of Bangladesh. Incidentally, Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) had already entered into a contract with the European space outfit Thales Alenia Space late last year to build and launch “Bangabandhu” domestic satellite. This satellite project, named after the founding father of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, would help strengthen the communications infrastructure in this thickly populated country. The Indian proposal is that ISRO could help Bangladesh to build the follow on satellites in the Bangabandhu series.
According to sources in Thales Alenia Space, the Bangabandhu satellite will narrow the digital divide as it will take broadcast and telecommunications services to the rural areas and help introduce services such as direct to home across Bangladesh. The service payload of the satellite comprises 26 Ku band 14 C band transponders. ”The contract for this telecommunications satellite signed with Thales Alenia Space ,the key European player in space telecommunications, marks a major turning point in the history of Bangladesh to not only reduce the digital divide but also speed up business development and create jobs.
Significantly, China Great Wall Industries Corporation (CGWIC), the commercial arm of the Chinese space programme, was one of the contenders for the satellite project of Bangladesh. However, much to India’s relief, Bangladesh chose to ink a deal with the European space telecommunications giant Thales Alenia Space for the project. Notwithstanding, the Chinese space footprint across the third world continues to expand with the GWIC successfully launching Lao Sat-1, a domestic communications satellite of Laos in November 2015 besides having built and launched domestic communications spacecraft for Nigeria in Africa and Bolivia and Venezuela in Latin America.
The SAARC Satellite
Addressing a gathering of Indian space scientists post the successful launch of India’s four stage trusted space workhorse, PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) in June 2014, Prime Minister Modi had called upon them for sharing “the fruits of our technological advancement with those who don’t enjoy the same” and had called upon ISRO to take up an initiative to develop and deploy a satellite system dedicated to provide a range of services to the neighbouring SAARC countries.
It was during the 2014 November SAARC summit that Prime Minister Modi had announced the proposal to build and launch a satellite that would benefit countries in the South Asia region. According to A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) the Indian space agency is planning to launch the satellite by end 2016. The satellite has been designed to play a key role in the development of region that is prone to natural calamities. India happens to be the only South Asian country to possess the required level of expertise and resources for building an launching a range of state of the art space platforms for communications and broadcasting, navigation, weather watch and earth observation.
In developments that followed, India had out-rightly rejected the Pakistani offer of “technical and financial” help for the realization of the SAARC satellite project on the ground that it perceives SAARC satellite project as “gift to the neighbouring countries,” Pakistan however preferred to drop out of the SAARC satellite project citing ‘security’ reasons and the SAARC satellite project would thereby now cover the SAARC region countries minus Pakistan.
It is perhaps the modest advances that Pakistan has made in the area of space technology with the assistance of China that underlay its opting out of the satellite project. Of course, Pakistan is far behind India in terms of building and launching advanced state of the art satellites for a variety of end uses and is yet to qualify a basic space vehicle for orbiting satellites. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmospheric Research Commission (SUPARCO) is building a remote sensing satellite which is expected to be launched in 2018, by means of a Chinese space vehicle.
A logical explanation for the somersault by Pakistan could however also be that that the Indian plan to build and launch a satellite meant to benefit SAARC countries could serve as an instrument to blunt the edge of China’s plan to strengthen space cooperation with South Asian countries including Maldives and Sri Lanka. Being China’s “all weather friend”, it could well have taken this extreme step to keep China in good humour.
All said and done, in the context of China spreading its influence across a part of the third world through a quiet space diplomacy based on an offer of alluring space co-operation package, India cannot afford to remain a silent spectator. For instance, Nepal, where anti India feelings are running amok, is said to be looking at China for its proposed domestic satellite system. Here, India needs to step up its diplomatic initiative to lure this Himalayan state away from the Chinese influence and convince it of the efficacy of getting a range of services provided by the satellites being operated by ISRO Unfortunately, due to the lack a sufficiently robust, heavy lift launch capability, India could not compete for the proposed satellite system of Maldives with which it has enjoyed a long and cordial relationship.
On its part, Sri Lanka has already taken a plunge by inking a contract for a Chinese made satellite system. The Sri Lanka based Supreme SAT, described as an integrated satellite operator, has contracted the China Great Wall Industries Corporation (CGWIC), for the in orbit delivery of Supreme SAT-II communications satellite involving a price tag of US $215-million. Using Supreme SAT-II, which is planned to be launched sometime next year, Supreme SAT plans to offer a range of satellite based services to customers in Asia and Africa.
South East Asia Outreach
With a view to project its soft power through the sharing of its space expertise, India is looking at the possibility of setting up a ground station in Fiji that could ultimately serve as a hub for sharing space expertise with the Pacific island nations. ISRO already operates ground stations in Mauritius, Brunei and Indonesia to help track the Indian satellites launched from Satish Dhawan Space Centre(SDSC) in Sriharikota island on India’s eastern coast. India has offered to share Indian space expertise with the countries in South East region where China, Japan, Australia and USA are jockeying to acquire a strategic edge.
Pertinently, the Department of Space (DOS) Annual Report for 2014-15 makes a reference to the plan for the setting up of a satellite data reception centre in Vietnam. It says, ”India is actively pursuing a proposal with ASEAN comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to establish a ground station in Vietnam to receive, process and use data from Indian satellites for a variety of applications including disaster management and support and also to provide training in space science ,technology and applications”. As part of its international cooperation programme, ISRO has offered to share its experience in utilizing the space technology for socio economic development with ASEAN countries which are also prone to natural disasters.
With as many as ten remote sensing spacecraft in service, ISRO operates one of the largest constellations of earth observation satellites in the world. These satellites carry a range of instruments that offer data in wide ranging spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions to cater to varied requirements. The data from these satellites find application in areas including resources management, environmental monitoring, disaster warning, weather prediction and urban planning as well as infrastructure development.
Against this backdrop, the Indian plan to set up a state of the art satellite monitoring station in Vietnam has attracted Chinese ire. China views the satellite data reception cum tracking and telemetry station in Ho Chi Minhcity as a “clear cut attempt to stir up trouble in the disputed South China Sea region”. The US$ 23-million ground station at Ho Chi Minhcity being set up, with the help of ISRO, when fully commissioned, will be linked up with the existing Indian satellite tracking station at Biak in Indonesia. China is concerned that the link up of ground stations would give India a significant advantage in the South China Sea region.
China, which does not brook any compromise to its dominance over resources of the strategically located South China Sea, has every reason to get perturbed over the Indian sponsored plan to set up a satellite monitoring station along with a satellite data reception centre in Ho Chi Minh City. For this high tech facility, meant to facilitate the application of space technology for a variety of civilian uses, could also give Vietnam a head start in tracking “events and developments” of strategic importance in the areas of interest including China and South China Sea on a sustained basis as the data received from high performance, high resolution earth observation satellites in IRS(Indian Remote Sensing Satellite) constellation being operated by ISRO could prove crucial for Vietnam in responding to the Chinese sabre rattling in the disputed South China Sea. (Incidentally, earth observation satellites meant for civilian uses can also be harnessed for surveillance and reconnaissance by the defence forces, as remote sensing and surveillance are considered two faces of the same coin).
The possibility of Vietnam using data from India’s radar imaging satellite, RISAT -1, to monitor the naval movements in South China Sea could be a matter of concern for China. There is no denying the point that data from an active, microwave imaging satellite capable of operating on round the clock basis, even under extremes of atmospheric and environmental conditions, could help Vietnam enhance its situational awareness in the volatile South China Sea region. Of course, ISRO describes RISAT-1 as a civilian space platform meant to enhance India’s earth observation capability with special reference to floods, land slides, cyclones and disaster management. As it is, RISAT-1 data in tandem with the data from the Indian Ocean watch satellite, Oceansat-II, could help Vietnam obtain a fairly good picture of the developments in South China Sea in a dynamic mode and enhance its situational awareness on the turbulent South China Sea. India’s current satellite tracking network –outside the country—comprises ground stations at Brunei, Biak in Indonesia and Mauritius. These facilities help ISRO track and monitor the Indian satellites launched from Sriharikota spaceport on India’s eastern coast and the upcoming Vietnamese facility will further enhance the Indian capability for post launch tracking and monitoring of satellites.
The Chinese political leadership in Beijing views the plan for Indian sponsored space facility in Ho Chi Min city as a ”clear cut attempt to stir up trouble in the disputed South China Sea”. A report appearing in the state controlled English language newspaper, In a Global Times report captioned, “Countries outside region play up test flights in South China Sea” quoted GuXiaosong, a researcher at the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences at Nanning writes “India has no territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. It wants to stir up trouble in the region to serve its own ends, which is to counter balance the Chinese influence”.
Vietnam has opted to strengthen its ties with India and despite the Chinese warnings, India’s OVL, the overseas arm of the state owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation(ONGC) continues to support Vietnam in the exploration of oil blocks in the disputed South China Sea region. It looks to India as a strategic partner in its fight against Chinese expansionism in South East Asia region.