The new space race in Asia

| May 26, 2018

Asia houses three established space powers — Japan, China and India — with space exploration goals ranging from social and economic development to improving telecommunications and national security.

But it is the national security drivers of Asian space exploration that are becoming more prominent, partly driven by the changing balance of power equations both within Asia and beyond.China’s growing space capabilities are driving much of the space competition in Asia.

For one, it has led to greater cooperation in space exploration between India and Japan. In September 2017, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to put outer space at the centre of their bilateral relationship.

They welcomed the ‘deepening of cooperation between the space agencies of the two countries in the field of Earth observation, satellite-based navigation, space sciences and lunar exploration’. Later in November 2017, the president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum announced that ‘India and Japan will lead the space sector in the Asia Pacific region’.

The Indian space program is more than six decades old, and until recently, New Delhi’s primary focus was in using space technology to improve social and economic conditions for its population. Before China’s first anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007, India appeared to think that security competition in outer space was confined to the big powers.

The Chinese ASAT test awakened India to the kind of challenges it needs to confront in its own backyard and demonstrated that even areas of the global commons such as outer space are not spared from terrestrial geopolitical competition. The ASAT test gave way to new debates in India on the kind of counter-space capabilities that it must develop to protect its own space assets.

India says that it has the technological blocks for a successful demonstration of an ASAT capability, should the need arise. An Indian ASAT test would go against the grain of India’s decades-long stance that space must be used for peaceful purposes alone and must not be weaponised. This shift in rhetoric reflects India’s recognition that if it does not keep up with emerging trends in space, it stands to lose in a critical area of technology.

Similar deliberations are taking place in Japan and the new Japanese space policy highlights space security as a key focus area.

Yet space competition in Asia began well before the Chinese ASAT test. China’s first manned space mission in October 2003 — making China the third country after the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve this feat — provided the initial spark.

This achievement is part of China’s larger plan to carry out a human exploration program, which has as its final goal the development and operation of a Chinese space station in low earth orbit. At a time when the International Space Station will be winding down its operation, China plans to get its own station up and running by 2024.

China’s growing counter-space capabilities, including developing technologies such as the robotic arm, and the increasing number of close rendezvous operations of Chinese satellites are also raising concerns about the possible security implications of China’s military space program.

In response to China’s accomplishments in space, India and Japan initially looked at pursuing their own independent lunar missions. But so far they have not been able to successfully compete with China’s robotic exploration program. For instance, China’s Chang’e robotic lunar exploration program is considered technologically far superior to anything India or Japan could develop.

The Chang’e 4 mission plans to land and explore the surface on the far side of the Moon, which no other country has done so far. Neither India’s ad hoc lunar and Mars robotic missions nor Japan’s exploration of the Moon and near-Earth objects come close to challenging China in this regard. India and Japan have instead decided to combine their efforts, outlined in the Modi–Abe statement.

India is also undertaking meaningful conversations with other space players, such as France and the United States. With China’s aggressive posturing in the South China and East China seas and its growing profile in the Indian Ocean, the use of space assets to achieve maritime domain awareness – an understanding of issues related to the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy or environment of a country – has the potential to emerge as a shared area of cooperation among India, the United States, Japan and France.

All of this suggests that a new space race is heating up in Asia that is compounded by the region’s changing balance of power alignments. Space is becoming yet another domain of competition among Asia’s great powers. It can no longer be seen as an innocent and cooperative arena of policymaking, and one cannot remain sanguine about outer space stability.

It is unlikely that the balance of power equation in Asia will stabilise anytime soon, which would suggest that the budding space race is only going to continue to intensify into the future.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.