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Growing Space Focus in Sino-Indian Rivalry

China has directed a $13 million loan to Pakistan toward a joint communications satellite project, while space cooperation between America and India reaches new levels of sophistication. 

ANALYSIS: Pakistan’s Ambassador to China, Masood Khan, signed a loan agreement with the government-owned Export-Import Bank of China on 9 October to finance the ground control apparatus for a new ‘Paksat-1R’ communications satellite, to be launched on 14 August 2011. This bilateral effort to ensure technical interchange illustrates space as a growing area of contestation in regional strategic developments.

Chinese Space Outreach: This satellite project builds upon a substantial history of China serving as a reliable supplier of sensitive military technology to Pakistan. China launched Pakistan’s first indigenous satellite, Badr-A, in 1990 from Xichang Launch Center in Sichuan. The operation of this satellite gave Pakistani scientists practical understanding of telemetry, orbital patterns, surveillance, and Chinese launch platforms.

The Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), headquartered in Beijing, was established in 2005 to improve Chinese multilateral space collaboration. APSCO members include Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, and Thailand. International technical cooperation enables Beijing to encourage interoperability with Chinese rocket technology and obtain a greater share of the international commercial launch market.

Achievements in civilian space programs can have great relevance to military projects. Civilian and military rockets utilize similar propulsion, positioning, and control technologies. Space cooperation can therefore serve dual purposes, and support Chinese strategic as well as commercial aims in placing Chinese assistance at the heart of rocket programs of potential allies.

Chinese Strategic Developments: A core aim of Chinese strategic planning is to improve its utilization of space-borne assets. Chinese Air Force Commander General Xu Qilang commented in November 2009 that “as far as the revolution in military affairs is concerned, the competition between military forces is moving towards outer space…this is a historical inevitability and cannot be turned back”.

China’s determination to hold the option of denying the use of space-based capabilities to other states was illuminated in its successful test of an anti-satellite weapon in January 2007, eliminating an old Chinese weather satellite. Building upon this experience, Beijing conducted its first ballistic missile defense (BMD) test on 11 January 2010.

China is developing a geospatial positioning Compass Navigation Satellite System (CNSS), equivalent to the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems. This will further improve military targeting and location abilities, while offering civilians a satellite positioning service that heralds Chinese technical acumen. Beijing also seeks to launch a manned space lab by 2020.

Indian Capabilities: New Delhi shares the recognition by Beijing of the importance of a wide range of space capabilities as an indispensable element of a robust defense. India’s ‘Phase 1’ BMD system incorporates the Prithvi Air Defense missile for high-altitude elimination of adversary missiles, and an Advanced Air Defense system for low-altitude interception. Supportive radar technology for this system has been sourced from Israel.

This system has been successfully tested and is moving toward active service. An improved ‘PDV’ interceptor is in development to replace the Prithvi Air Defense missile. The ‘Phase 1’ system is designed to target missiles with a maximum range of 2,000km, such as the Pakistani Shaheen-2 and Ghauri missiles. A ‘Phase 2’ system is planned for missiles with a range greater than 2,000km, implicitly those of Chinese origin.

Indian BMD development is a rare area of advantage in comparison with Chinese efforts. V.K. Saraswat, the head of missile development at the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation, recently commented that “This (BMD) is one area where we are senior to China.”

Influenced by the space-denial technology of China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, India is also developing its own anti-satellite abilities. As with India’s nuclear platform development, a perceived China threat is acting as a principal driver of the shape of Indian military developments.

American Leverage: The Indian Space Research Organisation is working with NASA on lunar exploration tasks. Indian diplomats are seeking for Washington to lift remaining restrictions on cooperation with Indian space capability development. Technology gained through this collaboration could transfer to India’s ICBM program and other military purposes.

BOTTOM LINE: The Sino-Indian race to introduce anti-satellite and BMD assets represents an emerging area of their wider strategic competition. American diplomats should pressure both states to forgo testing of anti-satellite capabilities. These generate substantial amounts of debris that is difficult to eradicate and threaten the operation of other satellites, even potentially those launched by the state initiating the test.

In formulating responses to Indian pressure to expand space collaboration, Washington should avoid activities that could be directed toward Indian military projects. Valuable civilian projects that could be expanded include recent US-Indian work to examine the prospect of space-based solar power. Washington should also seek for Beijing and New Delhi to become full members of the Missile Technology Control Regime. This would signify a clear commitment by both to restrict commerce of dual-use rocket technology. Responding to this emerging space-based element of their global rise should become an integral part of American diplomacy in the region.

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  • Anonymous on November 15 2010 said:
    So China and India are enemies now. Well, well. I spent 6 years in the US army preparing to fight a crazy war with Russia that was NEVER going to take place, and I was well paid for my troubles in travel and educational grants (after I became a civilian). Of course, the American taxpayers who paid for that travel and education probably would have preferred another use for their taxes,but uh....Anyway, thanks taxpayers, thanks Army, thanks Russians, and by the way, the money that India will waste on space ventures could almost certainly be more wisely used otherwise.

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