India Needs to Launch Its Space Diplomacy

Indians take deserving pride in their space programme – the odd failed rocket launch notwithstanding. I have been impressed because the Indian Space Research Organisation has been driven by a strong sense of the commercial. While it gets a financial leg up from New Delhi, it is among the most profit-driven government agencies that India has. It has spun its remote sensing capability into Antrix Corporation and launches satellites for other countries for a price. It may surprise many that the turnover of India’s space programme is about the same size as the Russian programme. And as a percentage of GDP, India has a space budget beaten only by the United States.

But India may need to look further than the business of making and launching satellites and the prestigious goal of manned spaceflight. It may need to put aside some time to think about international space policy as a whole.

The standard Indian space diplomacy stance has been idealistic. India is a signatory to the so-called Moon Treaty which sees space in liberal internationalist terms: a public good to be shared by the world community, no militarization, and so on.

But the international environment is moving in a different direction.

The uneasy military relationship between the US and China after the latter carried out an anti-satellite missile test and the minimal evidence of a global consensus enshrining the Moon Treaty’s concepts – none of the other “space powers” have signed the treaty – means India needs to become more proactive.

This means moving forward on two fronts.

One is to become part of the movement to push for the official stance – demilitarization and so on. It is noticeable that India and the US, after Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi, agreed to cooperate on global commons issues like space and maritime security. (They didn’t add cyberspace because of Washington’s objections that this wasn’t a naturally existing commons.) However, I think it is safe to say that when it comes to space the bilateral dialogue is at a preliminary stage.

Two is to move forward on the backup option. In other words, develop military space capabilities and so on in case the internationalist position falls apart.

India prefers to do such things without quite saying so. Missile defence would be the obvious way to move forward. Technologically, mastery of the former means a country is just a few steps away from anti-satellite missile capability. If anything, a satellite may be easier to shoot down given that it has a fixed, predictable trajectory.

These two policies need not be contradictory. India developing military space capabilities would strengthen its argument for a global agreement on space principles – it would be taken that much more seriously by countries like the US and China if it makes clear it can make space a four or five power game. And therefore pretty messy.

Anyway, New Delhi needs to ensure space is not the final frontier of its diplomacy.

(Thoughts inspired by the Observer Research Foundation-World Secure Foundation’s “Space Science and Security Conference,” New Delhi, January 19-21, 2011)



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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