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Japan’s ASEAN Space Diplomacy: Is Brunei Next?

The Sultan Omar Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.

China’s Space Silk Road, an offshoot of its much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has captured the attention of the space sector’s trade media over the past few years, but while China’s ambitions are certainly newsworthy, another Northeast Asian country is quietly building a scientific, technical, and diplomatic space community across Southeast Asia.

That country is Japan, and a recent visit to the tiny Southeast Asian Sultanate of Brunei by Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kano, could signal that this space community is about to expand.

As China, Japan, India, and South Korea compete for influence across the Indo-Pacific region through large infrastructure projects and investments, human and technical capacity-building assistance, and geopolitical clout, space is becoming a useful vehicle for these countries in achieving their geopolitical and economic ambitions.

Japan has been quietly exerting its space influence in recent years among the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and beyond in countries such as Sri Lanka and Kenya – countries where China, through the BRI, and India with its neighbourhood policies – also vie for influence.

Yet where China and India seem to favour large multilateral space projects, or push private companies to increase market share in satellite applications in weaker countries, Japan has quietly been building a network of bilateral space relationships through overseas development aid and through a number of Japanese universities. This network has been building human capacity, providing technology transfer, launch services, and actual satellites to a growing number of ASEAN countries that include:

–              Vietnam: Japanese overseas development aid is providing Vietnam with two ASNARO high-resolution Earth observation satellites, and Japanese government and commercial entities have been instrumental in getting the Vietnamese space programme started;

–              Indonesia: With help from Chiba University in Japan, the Indonesian space agency, LAPAN, is building a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) Earth observation micro satellite, the first SAR imaging microsatellite;

–              The Philippines: Hokkaido and Took Universities in Japan are assisting the Filipino space agency to build the DIWATA-2 environmental monitoring satellite, as well as assisting the creation of a microsatellite laboratory in Manila. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch DIWATA-2 later in 2018;

–              Myanmar: Japanese companies have been engaged in discussion with the Myanmar government about building an Earth observation microsatellite since at least 2012. Further, Japanese satellite manufacturers are also making proposals to build a geostationary orbit communications satellite for Myanmar;

–              Singapore: Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech) and Singapore’s National Technical University (NTU) recently co-built the AOBA VELOX-III research nano satellite, launched from the International Space Station (ISS) in January 2017, and the Japanese government and businesses are engaged with Singapore in other cooperative space projects. Singapore is also home to ASTROSCALE, with its headquarters located on the island city-state and its manufacturing facility located in Tokyo, Japan.

The visit to Brunei by Foreign Minister Kano on 12 February, 2018, covered a range of topics such as defence cooperation, maritime security, and economic diversification in Brunei, but also included talks on drawing up a technical cooperation agreement between the two countries. Technical cooperation agreements between Japan and other ASEAN countries have included provisions for space cooperation and assistance, and so there is the likelihood that an agreement between Japan and Brunei might well include the same.

China is also engaged in cooperative space projects in the ASEAN region. China is building communications satellites for both Cambodia and Laos; is in discussions with Myanmar and the Philippines about building satellites for them; and has long been cooperating with Singapore on a number of space projects.

Lastly, India is a relative latecomer to ASEAN space cooperation, but recently signed an agreement with ASEAN, and Vietnam in particular, to build a satellite tracking station in Vietnam as well as a data receiving station to be used by ASEAN-member states for downloading satellite imagery from Indian Earth observation satellites. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) also operates a downrange satellite tracking and telemetry station in Indonesia.

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