Diplomacy in Space

Space satellite

Wooing neighbours in space is a welcome step but India has mile to go on space diplomatic front


At 4.57 PM on May 5th, India launched the 2,230-kg GSAT-9 satellite on board its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-F09). What was planned as a ‘SAARC satellite’ for all the eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has turned into a ‘South Asia satellite’ after Pakistan backed out of it.

Its launch, minus Pakistan, is being billed as the biggest move India has ever made in space diplomacy. That may be true, but Afghanistan is still dithering over signing up for the satellite’s services. That leaves India with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal. Each participating country will get at least one of the 12 transponders for free to use as they see fit. These transponders can be used for enabling services ranging from disaster management to internet connectivity.

So why isn’t Afghanistan, the remaining SAARC country, accepting this ‘gift’?

Let’s go back a fortnight.

On April 20, China’s Industry and Information Technology Minister Miao Wei, an engineer by education and a wily operator in diplomacy, had two important visitors in his Beijing office. One was Afghanistan’s acting Minister of Communications and Information Technology Syed Ahmad Shah Sadat. He was accompanied by Mohammad Humayoon Qayumi, Chief Advisor to the Afghanistan President on infrastructure and technology.

Qayumi, 64, is no ordinary Afghan. With a string of degrees attached to his name, topped by a doctorate in electrical engineering, he was the President of San Jose State University and earlier, California State University in the US, before he returned to Kabul in 2015 to take up the new assignment.

As scheduled, the two ministers signed an agreement under which China would help Afghanistan with a 4,800-km fibre optic line. Stretching from Kashgar in China to Faizabad in Afghanistan, this would provide Afghanistan with the increased internet connectivity that it badly needs.

There was also an unexpected development at the meeting.

Wei offered to help Afghanistan build and launch that country’s second satellite Afghansat-2.

The visitors readily accepted it as a godsend opportunity. The life of Afghansat-1 launched by Paris-based Eutelsat will come to an end anytime after mid-2020 and the country must have its successor before that. It’s an irony that Afghansat-1 was, in fact, built for Eutelsat by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (Eads) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).

After it was launched in 2008 as Eutelsat W2M, Afghanistan signed up in 2014 to use some of its transponders and began calling it Afghansat-1.  It significantly helped the war-torn country launch television channels and gain access to mobile telephony and internet connectivity, and Afghanistan wants to make sure that its successor is in place in time.

With the South Asia Satellite (GSAT-9) India was only offering just one — or maybe a few — transponders, but China has offered Afghanistan an entire satellite, not for free but presumably at a discounted cost. It’s something like China offering the main course and India supplying the dessert. The Afghans fell for it.

Afghanistan may eventually decide to be a participant in the satellite, but by not jumping for it, it is telling India who its real friend is — at least in space.

Afghanistan is only the latest of the customers for China. Long before Prime Minister Narendra Modi came up with the idea of the “SAARC satellite”, China was already in the game of wooing the neighbouring countries and even far away nations into cooperation in space.

Offering help in space has for long been part of China’s geopolitical ambition and greed for establishing its hegemony in the region. While successive Congress governments were in deep slumber, relying on their pro-Soviet “non-alignment” policy, something like their pro-Muslim secularism, China grabbed every opportunity it could to woo and tame smaller countries which were dying to have one or two transponders, if not entire satellites.

The usefulness of “isolating” Pakistan through this venture is dubious. While Pakistan and Sri Lanka are already heavily depending on China for building and launching satellites and Afghanistan has now become the latest Chinese partner, Bangladesh is seeking help elsewhere.

Later this year, Bangladesh will have its own Banglabandhu-1, a 3,500-kg communications satellite. Built by Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Italy and France, it will be launched on board a Falcon -9 rocket of SpaceX of the US. That, of course, isn’t stopping China from continuing to extend help to Bangladesh. And sometime next year, China will launch Sri Lanka’s second satellite.

China has also been trying to get Nepal, Maldives and Myanmar into space partnerships. Not surprisingly, Pakistan was the first country where China had made its first foray into space cooperation in the sub-continent.

Pakistan set up its Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) in 1961, a year before India set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research (Incospar), which, in 1969, took the form of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). Though Pakistan initially received help from the US in developing its space programme, it was not until 1986 that it indigenously built a modest 53 kg Badr-1 satellite. When the US Challenger disaster delayed its launch, China came to Pakistan’s rescue and launched it on board its Long March 2E rocket in 1990.

Pakistan launched Badr-2 (68 kg) from the Ukrainian Zenit-2 rocket in 2001, but its third satellite, Paksat-1r (5,000 kg), was built by China and sent into space by a Chinese rocket in 2011. Since then, Chinese involvement in Pakistan’s space programme has risen sharply. Pakistan now plans to launch a remote sensing satellite, probably with Chinese help.

All this was seen by India for long as two enemies joining hands. It was only when China launched Sri Lanka’s first satellite SupremeSAT-1 (5,100 kg) on board its Long March 3B/E rocket on 27 November 2012, that India woke up. The then National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon asked the Department of Space for an assessment of its implications.

By the time Isro came on the scene and recommended that India should offer to build and launch satellites for Sri Lanka and officials got around to discussing it, it was time for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and China’s satellites were the least of the concerns for the UPA regime.

Even as Indian officials were discussing this, Sri Lanka signed another contract with China in 2013 to make and launch SupremeSAT-2 in 2018. China is also in the process of setting up a Space Academy at Pallekele, some 140 km west of Colombo.

One reason why India was unable to extend as much help to other countries as China was its inability to launch heavier satellites. India’s PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) rockets are capable of launching satellites weighing up to only 1,800 kg. And the Mark-2 version of GSLV, like the one that launched the South Asia Satellite on Friday, can launch payloads weighing up to 2,500 kg. Right now, India depends on foreign rockets to put its own heavier satellites in space. But the GSLV Mark-3, whose first developmental flight is slated for later this year, will enable the country to launch satellites weighing nearly 5,000.

But there is no reason why India didn’t help its neighbours launch smaller satellites, help them develop space infrastructure and train their scientists. If it did, it would have helped the country graduate to the position of launching their heavy satellites with the GSLV Mark-3 when it’s ready.

Modi is clearly paying for the blunders of his predecessors, though questions could be asked about what he himself has done in the last three years.

China also set up in 2005 the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation (Apsco) with Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey to promote collaborative ventures. Suspecting China’s motives, Japan, the other space power in the region, set up the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (Aprsaf), which is content to “share information about the activities and future plans” of countries. Both platforms have achieved little. China is tying up joint ventures through bilateral diplomacy.

All that India has done is to launch a satellite for the SAARC nations without Pakistan. Yet, Modi’s initiative is something better than what all his predecessors put together have done in terms of space diplomacy.