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#SWMEThemes: China’s Space Silk Road and the Middle East – The Indian Perspective

A Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) lifts off with India’s Mars Orbiter Mission probe from Satish Dhawan Space Center. Photograph courtesy of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

In Part Four of the SpaceWatch Middle East multi-week theme on China’s Space Silk Road and the Middle East, Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, India, offers an Indian perspective on China’s Space Silk Road, and points out that despite the rhetoric from Beijing, the Space Silk Road should be viewed in the context of the current geopolitical competition across Asia.

Asia is currently at the centre of global focus for several key reasons: it is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies, several of the largest and fastest-growing military powers, and six of the world’s nine nuclear weapon powers.

Now, Asia is beginning to see increased activity and focus in the area of outer space as well: a nascent competition and race for outer space dominance is beginning to take shape in the broader Indo-Pacific region. Much of the competition is shaped by China’s growing military power – including in the outer space domain. China’s space programme, despite the rhetoric that space must be used for peaceful purposes alone, is flourishing under the leadership of its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). With around 120 satellites placed in orbit, devoted to several different strategic applications that do not strictly fall within the purview of peaceful activities, China’s military ventures in space have created a bit of stir.

This increased interest may lead us to ask “What defines a Space Silk Road?” The concept of a Space Silk Road was originally suggested in 2014 by the International Alliance of Satellite Application Services (ASAS), a China-based consortium consisting of aerospace companies, institutions, and scholars which has undertaken outreach engagements for promoting Chinese satellite services across the globe. Thereafter, in May 2015, Chinese authorities announced at the 2nd China International Satellite Service Business Matching Event that “they could participate in the creation of a space-based Silk Road” along the One Belt One Road (OBOR) route. A Space Silk Road is essentially a Chinese proposal aimed at creating an entire range of space capabilities including satellites, launch services, and ground infrastructure, making a space version of the OBOR.

Three years on from its conceptualisation, the idea of a Space Silk Road has gained greater traction particularly because this is linked to President Xi Jinping’s pet project – OBOR. According to several reports, China conceives of building and utilising satellite-based services across the OBOR path, both as a means to strengthen connectivity in remote regions but also as a way to create Chinese satellite infrastructure in other countries, thereby denying potential opportunities to countries like India, Japan, or any other space power. While OBOR has several different connectivity corridors involving both land and maritime components, its security and success can only be ensured through the space component, or at least that is how it seems to be perceived by Beijing.

Beyond these considerations, China also appears keen on ensuring a certain amount of dependency from the countries in these regions, which would have long-term strategic implications.

China listed several ideas for the Space Silk Road in a space policy paper issued by the State Council Information Office sometime in 2016. The paper explained that navigation and positioning services, along with Earth observation, communications, remote-sensing, and weather forecasting, will be provided as part of a Belt and Road Initiative Space Information Corridor within the next five years. Of the nearly 120 satellites, it is estimated that the OBOR project will use dozens of them to give shape to the Space Silk Road project. ASAS Executive Vice President Wang Zhongguo has argued for the utility of the satellites in extending connectivity and linkages in areas that have “limited communication and transportation capacity.”

China has used this initiative successfully to increase its outreach in the Middle East and Central Asia, where it perceives possible competition from other established space players. For instance, Yinchuan, capital of Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, already houses a China-Arab satellite data service industrial park that has sold itself as an interface with Arab countries to extend satellite data services to the region. Further, in May 2017, at the First China-Arab States BeiDou Satellite Cooperation Forum held in Shanghai, Wang Li, chairman of China BeiDou Satellite Navigation System Committee, said that the Chinese BeiDou satellite-based navigation system will start providing basic positioning and navigation services to Arab states from the end of 2018. Arrangements have been worked out between the China Satellite Navigation System Office (CSNSO), the Arabic Information and Communication Technologies Organization (AICTO), and the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport, for a variety of programmes including training, research, and application promotion, between China and the region. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria are among the included countries. Similarly, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region’s Xinjiang Satellite Application Engineering Center has emerged as a major hub offering services to Central Asia. Xinjiang has enjoyed a particular advantage, housing the largest number of ground station for high-resolution Earth observation satellites.

What do these developments signify and how do they impact regional and global space dynamics? At one level, the Space Silk Road seems to be an expansion of what President Xi has envisioned in the OBOR project, including the maritime domain – an effort to carve a dominant space in this global sphere. OBOR itself is seen as a mammoth exercise at reviving and reclaiming China’s old heritage and place in the emerging global order.

While there are several references in China’s space programme to its ancient heritage, such as using names from Chinese mythology for various missions, the new manifestations of its programme are reflections of the current geopolitical competition. Asia already houses three established space players – Japan, China, and India – and the region also has five of the ten countries in the world that can independently launch satellites into orbit: China, India, Japan, Iran, and Israel. With space becoming one more domain of geopolitical competition among the major powers, the scope of outer space activities is expanding and is no longer restricted to peaceful activities. Moreover, the increasing trend towards space weaponisation will have long-term consequences for the sustainability of this global common. All of this is taking place within the broader context of the shifting global balance of power and rise of Asia, thus contributing to a growing sense of competition and rivalry. Nevertheless, China’s rise has been most spectacular — and also most consequential. Given the baggage of history and unresolved issues of border, territory, and even sovereignty, Asian competition, in the domain of outer space and beyond, is here to stay.

Many analysts have suggested that there have been no major technological breakthroughs and that the only real change has been in the actors. The competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s is being replayed between the U.S. and China, as well as between China and its regional rivals, India and Japan. Therefore, much of China’s effort is in testing and perfecting existing technologies, which has also been used by Beijing to trump up nationalism within China. Even so, China’s Moon mission is important because it is planning to land on the far side of the Moon by 2018, an effort no country has yet made. There are other commendable achievements, too. China’s first quantum satellite network launched in August 2016 is a case in point: it is a communication channel that is almost impossible to intercept.

China has approached space not just from a strategic perspective but from a commercial angle as well. It has used space-based services as a way to buy influence in third countries in addition to manufacturing of satellites, providing launch and navigation services to a number of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Nigeria, Bolivia, and Venezuela. But China, through these commercial engagements, has also managed to build its strategic and foreign policy goals in these countries.

India, Japan, and the U.S. are beginning to acknowledge these new realities as new strategic gambits, but they are yet to offer a structured and calculated response. The piecemeal approach they have adopted will not change the game in their favour. The political leadership in these countries needs to recognise the strategic consequences of China’s new determination and provide a more concerted approach if it is to match China’s efforts.

Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan. Photograph courtesy of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India.

Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Senior Fellow and heads the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She served at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India for almost five years from 2003 to 2007. She tweets @raji143 and can be reached at [email protected]

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