New Delhi, Oct. 16: Big powers have long used money and muscle to build a league of satellite states. Now China is vexing India by using real satellites to gain extra strategic heft in the region.
China has stolen a lead over India in space diplomacy by offering technology, discounted satellite launches and an alternative to GPS navigation to regional neighbours, leaving New Delhi scrambling for a response its beleaguered space agency is ill-equipped to deliver.
Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Brunei and even Turkmenistan have all joined traditional allies of China like Pakistan and Iran in negotiating agreements with Beijing to develop space initiatives of their own.
The Prime Minister’s Office has asked the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) to prepare a strategy to counter China, and the space department has already agreed on new pacts like one finalised with Indonesia during Manmohan Singh’s visit to Jakarta last week.
But India’s space agency has indicated to officials seeking its assistance for strategic diplomacy that it is severely hamstrung by a lack of resources, senior officials involved in the discussions have said.
“Quite simply, we just don’t have the kind of resources and budget the Chinese do,” a senior official at the Indian space agency said, requesting anonymity.
The China Great Wall Industry Corporation, set up by Beijing in 1982 as the commercial arm of its space programme, won its first foreign client in 1990 when it launched Pakistan’s maiden satellite. A decade later, in 2001, it added Iran to its list of customers.
But its great leap forward started in 2005 when China brought Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, Mongolia and Peru under one umbrella, setting up the Asia-Pacific Space Co-operation Organisation. By keeping out Japan and India, the only other Asian nations with developed space programmes, China ensured the other nations in the group were dependent on it for the development of their space programmes.
“From a strategic point of view, that’s what I know is really worrying the ministry of external affairs, and justifiably,” said V. Siddhartha, a strategic policy analyst who had worked with India’s space and defence programmes, and was an adviser to the foreign ministry in the last decade.
India isn’t alone in having such concerns. The US and the European Union blocked China from winning a contract from Turkmenistan to build its first satellite, but Beijing found more willing partners among India’s neighbours.
Last year, China launched a satellite for Sri Lanka and is scheduled to launch the island nation’s first communications satellite in 2015. The private Sri Lankan firm the Chinese collaborated with includes President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son in its top management.
China helped Myanmar set up its first dedicated aerospace engineering university, offered Bangladesh images from its earth observation satellites, and is now lobbying with the governments of Nepal and the Maldives to launch their first-ever satellites.
In 2011, China launched its own navigational satellite system called the Beidou, which it offered to other nations in the region as an alternative to the American Global Positioning System. Thailand and Pakistan have adopted Beidou.
“What China is trying to do is use space as a soft power tool to influence public sentiment in nations where it wants a stronger foothold,” Wing Commander Ajey Lele, a research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), said.
Antrix, the Indian space agency’s commercial arm launched in 1992, has collaborated with other nations too. India has had relations in space technology and satellite launches with Indonesia. But most of Antrix’s international co-operation has largely been limited to the occasional launch of tiny satellites for nations like Belgium, France, Germany, South Korea and Israel — which fall outside India’s neighbourhood.
China’s foreign space collaboration, by contrast, has focused on the neighbourhood and on developing nations in Africa and Latin America where it is competing with India for influence. India’s space department, officials pointed out, is trying to compete.
Last Friday, India firmed up plans to build on its old space ties with Indonesia when Prime Minister Singh met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta. India will launch at least one Indonesian satellite in 2014, train Indonesian space scientists, and upgrade a telemetry tracking station it set up for Indonesia in Irian Jaya.
But catching up will be hard, experts warned. While China can undertake over 20 launches a year, India can manage two or three, Lele said.
Financially, the commercial arm of China’s space agency has been growing its clientele and profits. Antrix has been running into losses, according to its latest publicly available balance sheets from 2010.