The Growing Space Rivalry Between China and India


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Oct 13, 2010
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The Growing Space Rivalry Between China and India

2011-01-18 (China Military News cited from Diplomatic Courier and written by Uddipan Mukherjee)

As per the words of the father of Indian space program, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai: "There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society."

The afore-mentioned statements are also upheld by the present director of India\'s Space Commission, Rodham Narasimhan. He asserts that India's forays into space are basically along the development paradigm, which concerns among others, "communications, remote sensing, and agricultural crop production."

One thing is difficult to go unnoticed however. ISRO proclaims of a Human Space Flight and overtly ambitious planetary explorations as a couple of its envisaged missions by 2025. ISRO also adds a comparatively novel agenda that it aims to use satellite based communication and navigation systems for security needs.

Such declarations, though they appear to be deviations from charted territory, probably have a sound logic. India's rival neighbor, China has a slightly different outlook towards the agenda of utilizing "space".

In November 2000, Beijing published a "White Paper" outlining the goals and guiding principles for its space program. The core aspect can be enunciated in a nutshell:

""¦"¦.making the development of space activities cater to and serve the state's comprehensive development strategy. The Chinese government attaches great importance to the significant role of space activities in implementing the strategy of revitalizing the country with science and education and that of sustainable development, as well as in economic construction, national security, science and technology development and social progress."

A simple comparison will easily elucidate the different regimes in which the two governments tread in terms of space activities. While Beijing also attaches importance to developmental activities pertaining to communications and socio-economic growth of the nation-state, it is not at all averse to 'national security' which arises as a spin-off from such activities.

However, India appears to be reluctant to ascribe any military significance to its space programme, more so in an explicit form. The phrase 'security needs' have necessarily been kept vague and basically pertain to internal security threats. Possibly such a reluctance forces Johnson-Freese, a China space specialist to assert that both India and Japan have space capabilities matching China\'s but, not the "political will" to use them the way China has.

Based on official statistics placed by ISRO, India has about 21 satellites. Out of them, 10 are communication satellites, revolving in Geo-stationary Earth Orbits. Moreover, there are four surveillance satellites with imaging capabilities. They have resolutions of less than 2.5 meters. Furthermore, there are seven earth observation satellites. Interestingly, these satellites are of dual use; they can be used for defense purposes too. But, to date, an actual military satellite is absent.

However, the Indian Defence Ministry in May 2010, unveiled plans for dedicated military satellites for the Navy, Air Force, and the Army. The purpose seems to address the specific space based communication requirements of the defense forces.

Apart from this, there are some further developments which indicate that New Delhi is considering widening its options in space activities. Incidentally, ISRO has already achieved considerable expertise with regard to Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs) and has gone for successive commercial launches in a successful manner.

Nevertheless, ISRO has yet to acquire efficiency in the Geo-stationary Launch Vehicles (GSLVs). The GSLV Mark-III is an ongoing project in that direction. It has been the fallout of the American muscle-flexing in a post-1991 world which coerced Russia not to part with the Cryogenic technology to India, citing obligations to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). In fact, the lack of cryogenic technology has hindered India's growth trajectory in terms of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which are perceived as effective deterrents in an envisaged war-climate with Beijing.

Any space maneuvering by India, though concealed within the yoke of the socio-economic model, has a security aspect naturally tied to it. And the rationale is provided by the rapid strides made by its northern neighbor, with which India has a persistent border problem. Hence, any move made by the Chinese in space, necessarily has an Indian countermove coming up.

For instance, the Chinese have already sent humans to space. They have developed their ICBMs. They are in an enviable position in terms of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) programmes. This forces India all the more by strategic demands, to catapult its space programme to tally with that of Beijing.

ISRO's former Chairman Dr. Kasturirangan says that India has entered the "expansion phase" of its space programme since it has achieved the initial goals of economic growth with the help of space technology. Now, India can afford the luxuries of space science and possibly even human spaceflight. And with the overwhelming success of the nation-state's first lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan-1, he is quite right.

India's future ambitions are the development of GSLVs, further lunar exploratory missions (Chandrayan-II), a two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle, human spaceflight, and further international cooperation to expand its horizons. The commercialization of this venture has already received a strong backing from the government with the creation of Antrix Corporation, which markets Indian space capabilities around the world.

However, in a direct comparison with China, the Indian space programme appears to be lackadaisical. While both the countries started off more or less at the same time in the 1970s, China has outpaced India. While India still contemplates sending an astronaut to space, China already did in 2003.

Way back in 1992, when India was reeling under economic and political turmoil, Project \'921\' commenced in China. Its mission was to put a human in space. Called the Shenzhou (divine vehicle) program, the first four spacecrafts were unmanned but the fifth and sixth carried yuhangyuan or \'travelers of the universe\'. The fifth mission took place in October 2003. A Long-March 2-F rocket launched Shenzhou-5 and China\'s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into space. The flight lasted almost a day. Two years later, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, orbited in the Shenzhou-6 for five days. As of 2010, six Chinese nationals have traveled in space.

On the contrary, India has yet to develop the technique for a re-usable space vehicle—a precursor to manned mission into space. Presently, ISRO is planning for GSLV Mark 3, which is scheduled for first launch in early 2011. The Mark 3 will be more capable than the present GSLVs, but as of yet it is only a paper vehicle. Moreover, India's human space program has not yet been fully defined or approved at the political level.

Continuing the comparisons between the two countries, it goes to show that where China has already exhibited its prowess in ASAT capabilities by successfully destroying an old satellite of itself in 2007, India is in a rudimentary stage in that regard. In fact, China scores over India in terms of the number of satellites in orbit too, with its 57 over India's 21.

Recently, China's space programme was in the news as on October 1, 2010, it launched an unmanned lunar probe, Chang\'e-2. This was part of the project to send a human being to the moon around 2020. China has also announced that it plans to complete a manned space station by 2020.
The moot question in this scenario is whether both India and China are embarking on a 'headless' competition to have an edge against each other as the next leader in Asia? Or, is venturing into space a natural consequence of high growth in technology? Moreover, is China over-stretching its resources like the erstwhile Soviet Russia in showcasing its space prowess? And if India follows China in that path, shall it not dig its own grave in terms of the rationale of economics?

Such developments portend a vigorous weaponization of space. Colonel Deepak Sharma of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi warns of such a possibility. He opines that "the vulnerability of space assets is a function of dependence on those assets". Thus higher the dependence on space system, the higher will be the vulnerability. He advocates that the dependence on space assets need to be reduced and in future, such a scenario is likely to be in view of induction of latest state-of-the art 'other' systems.

The negative aspects of weaponization of space notwithstanding, India certainly cannot negate its prospects of bolstering the space programme. With China's ambitious rise in the backdrop, it is not only necessary, rather imperative for India to build upon the space activities and that too, with alacrity and without compromising quality. Nonetheless, a couple of things are noteworthy in this regard.

One, India should not overstretch its financial resources so as to 'just compete' with China. Beijing may follow that path vis-à-vis America and that might foment another ambience of a new Cold War in Asia. But India needs to tread cautiously. Presently, the Chinese space budget is around $2.2 billion per year whereas India is behind at almost one-third the amount. India needs to activate its budgetary allowances and aim for targets within prescribed durations. At the same time, financial destabilization needs to be thwarted by avoiding a blind adherence to the China model.

Second, the Indian policy-makers need to appreciate that space is slowly emerging as the fourth frontier of warfare as it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore space-based technology in our daily lives. In the eventuality of a conventional war, India faces the risk of being rendered handicapped in terms of communications if it does not develop an effective deterrent in that regard. To be dependent on the satellites of other countries in order to decrease the risk factor is a negative way of solving issues. More so, when ISRO has already developed a commercially viable space programme, a natural shielding becomes a necessity.

Donald Rumsfeld's vision of a 'Space Pearl Harbor' and Ronald Reagan's views on Space Wars might be too extravagant for an Indian scenario at present; however, that must not deter India to actively pursue an ambitious space programme with a vision of sending a human being to space. However, for such grand plans to fructify, international collaboration must be in the offing. Both China and India can play significant role in that regard. Since both are yet to be a party to the International Space Station, both of them shall keep on contesting with each other and with the rest of the world.

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