The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Chinese Space Station illustration
China and India, often competitors on the ground, could build bridges in space through cooperation on China’s upcoming space station program. (credit: CNSA)

Time for fresh thinking about collaboration in space

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Russia celebrates April 12, the day Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in 1961, as Cosmonautics Day. This year, on the 55th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke via video link with astronauts from the US and Russia aboard the International Space Station (ISS). He highlighted the ability of both nations to cooperate closely in space despite various differences on Earth. It’s really amazing that both Russia and the US have successfully developed an “orbital cooperation” in spite of having ongoing terrestrial confrontation.

The space cooperation between Moscow and Washington offers an example of how, despite major political differences, two nations can work together. Such approach is extremely remarkable since both the states have significant military dependence on their assets in space. These states also understand that superiority in space has wider strategic and global technology leadership connotations. Still they are keen to collaborate in space. It could be difficult to identify a specific reason for such collaboration. The reasons could be many from strategic to economic, including necessity. Also, such collaboration allows them to have a channel for negotiation open.

The space cooperation between Moscow and Washington offers an example of how, despite major political differences, two nations can work together.

In December 1993, the US welcomed Russia to join the ISS, the most ambitious project in space in recent times. Since 2011, the US is totally dependent on Russia for transporting astronauts to ISS after the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Currently, the US relies on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines to launch many satellites. The Air Force will need to buy Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas for several more years.

At the same time, it should clear that there is some political resistance to this relationship in space. For example, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is lobbying hard to stop the US reliance on the Russian-made RD-180. For now, though, it appears that the US has very little choice in this regard.

In both the Cold War and the post-Cold War eras, relations between the erstwhile USSR/Russia and the US have been defined and redefined because of the strategic choices made by these states. If the Cold War era is seen as an era of Space Race competition between these two major powers, then the post-Cold War era is essentially that of space collaboration. In recent times space has not driven the relations between the two countries, rather space has emerged as a bright spot in their diplomatic relations.

Is the Russia-US story of space collaboration worthy of emulation, and if so, then who could be most suitable nations to follow this path?

In Asia, China has emerged as a major player in the space arena. China’s strength in the space arena may not be as great as that of the US and Russia, but nonetheless the three countries can be viewed as the first-rung space players in the world. Beyond China, Japan and India have emerged as major investors in the space field in Asia. At a global scale both Japan and India could be categorized as second-rung space players. Now, is there a case for both these nations to follow the Russia-US space collaboration model?

China and Japan are the second and third largest economies in the world today, and India is also emerging as a major economic force. These countries also possess significant military capabilities, with India and China possessing nuclear weapons. However, China’s bilateral relationships with both Japan and India have the baggage of maritime and land boundary disputes. Japan is an ally of the US and hosts US military facilities. In regards to the disputes in South China Sea, some other states are also putting their claims. Hence, there are different shades in Japan-China bilateral relationship while India-China bilateral relationship is more black and white. Is there the potential for China-India space collaboration?

India and China fought a conventional war during 1962, when India came under attack by China. Memories of this war continue to shape India’s threat perceptions even today. The land-border issues between the nations remain unresolved, and occasionally tensions do build up on the border region. However, not a single bullet has ever been fired over last four to five decades. Both countries continue to have security concerns regarding each other, yet their relationship is not hostile but instead probably more guarded. There are various areas where the countries are cooperating with each other, both bilaterally and multilaterally. In fact, both countries have even undertaken some joint military exercises.

China probably would not like to collaborate with a nation like India in the space arena. This is why they need to look critically at the US-Russia example.

Science and technology is one arena where China and India have a long history of collaboration. Meteorology, for example, is one field where collaboration has expected for many decades. Space is another arena where some limited collaboration has existed for many years. Now, China is expected to join hands with India for a proposed “BRICS Constellation” of satellites. BRICS is a group of countries that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and there is a proposal to develop a remote sensing satellite constellation for BRICS countries. It is possible that bilateral and multilateral collaborations involving India and China could assist towards mutual trust building.

There is also view, though, that both China and India are involved in a space race. However, it needs to be appreciated that the concept of an arms race, from which the notion of a space race generally gets derived, is a Cold War era concept and not applicable in the 21st century. Both China and India are pragmatic states and fully understand that getting into a space race would be economically suicidal and have no strategic benefit. China has far better capabilities than India in space and, just because India has successfully undertaken a Mars mission before China, does not qualify them to be in the race with China.

Would China be keen to collaborate with India in the outer space arena? After all, space is a strategic program of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and even Chinese civilian projects could have some spinoff benefits for the military. Hence, China probably would not like to collaborate with a nation like India in the space arena. This is why they need to look critically at the US-Russia example.

Presently, the Belt and Road (B&R) initiative (also known as 21st century Maritime Silk Road, or One Belt, One Road i.e. OBOR) is at the heart of China’s foreign and economic policy. This is a gigantic proposal linking China with Europe through Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. This initiative is rooted in history, and the present Chinese leadership views it as a legacy initiative. The development of this initiative involves global connectivity by road, rail, and sea for the purposes of business. With this project, China is using commerce as a tool to expand its geopolitical and geostrategic influence.

Due to commercial, political, and geographical reasons China is very keen that India should join this initiative. However, India has its own set of reasons to remain cautious about China’s motives. Maritime routes followed by road linkages are the key components of this initiative. Any such links involving India would also mean connectivity through terror-prone regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under such circumstances, Indian reluctance is obvious. What is important for China is to engage India in a sector where borders are irrelevant and security concerns are minimal.

Two less discussed aspects of the B&R initiative are programs known as “Air Silk Road” and “Space-based New Silk Road.” The space-based segment would have a major navigational component (China’s Beidou system) and many communications and high-resolution remote sensing satellites. China could, for example, cooperate with India to launch remote sensing satellites under this program.

There would also be three important navigational systems in the proposed B&R initiative zone: Beidou, Russia’s Glonass, and the new Navigation with an Indian Constellation, or NavIC. The strategic significance of all three navigational systems is obvious. China is already collaborating with Glonass. The Glonass Union and Chinese manufacturing company Norinco are expected to undertake joint development and production of a multisystem receiver module for satellite navigation systems. Now, if the US was long able to provide to access to GPS to almost anybody worldwide in spite of it being a military system, then what stops China and India to at least examine the possibility of collaboration in the navigation sector?

China and India could also examine the feasibility for jointly developing ground infrastructure and spaceports in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Such infrastructure could also help towards establishing a portion of a space situational awareness (SSA) architecture.

The proposed Chinese space station offers China an excellent opportunity to make its space program more inclusive.

China’s 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test, followed by some subsequent related activites in space, have created concerns about its intentions in space and investments towards developing counterspace capabilities. Also, there are concerns about the ground station that China is planning to build in the Patagonia region of Argentina. Hence, it is important for China to tear the curtain of secrecy about its agenda in space. One or two actions involving collaborations with other nations would not immediately ease all of these concerns, but would allow some positive actions towards transparency and confidence building mechanisms to begin.

The proposed Chinese space station offers China an excellent opportunity to make its space program more inclusive. The ISS is a classic case of effective multilateralism in the outer space arena. China is likely to launch a core module belonging to its first space station around 2018 and expects to finish the construction by 2022. This is expected to bemuch smaller than ISS and likely to host three or four astronauts.

At this stage, China is going alone in this venture. However, the establishment of a space station is an opportunity for a global engagement and also a chance to refute the global perceptions that space station is being developed with a hidden military agenda. The best option for China to mitigate those concerns and promote international cooperation could be to carry an Indian astronaut to its space station.