With China’s Belt and Road Initiative coming under criticism, and a proposed infrastructure programme in the offing from the so-called ‘Quad’ powers of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, ThorGroup GmbH Chairman and President, Dr. John B. Sheldon, argues that the Quad powers tap the potential of their NewSpace sectors to create an alternative and more sustainable ‘Space Silk Road’ throughout the economically vital Indian Ocean Region.
There is a geoeconomic space race developing between China and other Great Powers in developing a space economy that supports, and corresponds to, their infrastructure and governance programmes on the Earth’s surface. Nowhere is this competition more evident than in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
What is the character of this geoeconomic competition, especially in space, and what is in it for the IOR? How should countries – especially the so-called Quad powers – respond to Chinese inititiatives? This essay provides a brief overview of these developments, and argues that the Quad powers need to harness commercial space companies as a strategic and economic counter to China’s statist approach.
Geopolitics and Geoeconomics in the IOR
While Geopolitics (with a capital ‘G’) is back, how competition between Great Powers is played out in the 21st Century is taking on different, yet concurrent forms.
On one level, 21st Century geopolitics is the classical Great Power competition of historic fame (or infamy) over honour and interest using militaries, ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and Realpolitik statecraft, as can be seen in the tensions between India and China over such issues as the Doklam plateau at the intersection of the Chinese, Indian, and Bhutanese borders, or over the political infuences at work between China and India in the Maldive islands in the Indian Ocean.
On another, yet interconnected, level, 21st Century geopolitics is in fact about geoeconomic competition over the creation of infrastructure, trade routes, financial systems, information and digital networks, and all of their associated regulatory and policy frameworks, and the political and economic systems and ideas that animate them. This geoeconomic competition is readily visible through the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and over the past few weeks, talk of an alternative geoeconomic vision known as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) region put forward by the so-called Quadrilateral (also just known as the Quad) countries consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.
China’s BRI not only consists of ports, roads, railways, pipelines, and submarine cables, but also of communications, Earth observation, and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites for use by the Chinese government, citizens, companies, and participating BRI countries across its geographical expanse emanating from China through Southeast, Central, and South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian Ocean itself.
For example, China’s so-called Space Silk Road consists of an expanding user community for its Beidou PNT system, the use of loans to build communication and Earth observation satellites for countries in return for favourable access to their natural resources, and plans to build large constellations of communications and imaging satellites for commercial use across the Eurasian supercontinent and the Indian Ocean Region.
The Growing Problem with BRI
BRI is starting to raise a number of concerns among an increasing number of countries.
First, there is the concern that, despite Chinese protests to the contrary, BRI has more than geoeconomic goals and purposes. Almost no one believes claims by Beijing that BRI is an altruistic construction initiative where in fact it is a vehicle for expanding Chinese economic and political influence. Further, even if China has no immediate geostrategic intentions for the BRI, most of the infrastructure being built – to include the Space Silk Road – has military utility.
Second, some of the infrastructure projects being built under the umbrella of the BRI have been criticized for being nothing more than vanity projects for corrupt local leaders, and possess no, if any, economic viability or practical use. This only further encourages corruption across the IOR, stymies much-needed economic development, and is a waste of scarce resources and financing.
Third, and lastly, China is coming under growing criticism from countries such as Japan and the United States for essentially using predatory loans for infrastructure in poor IOR countries, placing these already vulnerable and unstable states into unsustainable debt and, again, thwarting meaningful economic development.
The Quad’s proposed FOIP offers an alternative that could provide targeted and high-quality infrastructure throughout the IOR as a form of overseas aid, and so not place the poorest and least developed countries in the region into unnecessary debt.
Targeted infrastructure also involves conducting in-depth economic, political risk, and environmental impact assessments to make sure that whatever infrastructure is built has the maximum economic impact in return for the least adverse political and environmental consequences.
Providing communications connectivity and precise and reliable PNT coverage, as well as continued monitoring and surveillance of infrastructure and transportation corridor usage and the general environment of the IOR is as much a priority as the building of ports, airports, roads, and railways on Terra Firma.
Enter the Quad…in Space?
It is on this point that the existing government and commercial space capabilities of the Quad powers can offer this maximum benefit in return for minimal adverse political and environmental impact.
The Quad countries – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – have existing space infrastructure that could be offered to countries throughout the IOR, ranging from enhanced PNT services provided by India’s NAVIC, Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), and the U.S.’ Global Positioning System (GPS), through to advanced and timely environmental monitoring through Indian, Japanese, and U.S. meteorlogical satellites. Of course, many of these space services are provided to IOR countries for free, but it is perhaps worth reminding regional publics and governments of this.
Other space infrastructure, such as a basic Space Situational Awareness service for IOR satellite operators, could be set up using Indian and Australian facilities, as well as American and Japanese technologies and support. Further, the effort to establish commonsense ‘rules of the road’ in safe and predictable space operations could be revived with IOR space activities as the centre and fulcrum of that diplomatic effort.
Quad NewSpace Power
Just as importantly, however, and certainly less considered when contemplating how best to offset China’s growing influence with its Space Silk Road, is to put Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. commercial space power to work in the service of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
The IOR is evolving into one of the most populous and economically vibrant parts of the world, with increasingly busy sea and air routes criss-crossing the Indian Ocean between Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, as well as new and exciting markets for space services.
There is a burgeoning need for commercial satellite communications throughout the IOR for everything from satellite television broadcasting and air and maritime connectivity through to High Throughput Satellite services for Smart Cities and broadband access. Certainly, companies such as Intelsat, Optus, and JSAT are obvious contenders here, but so are LeoSat and SpaceX’s proposed Starlink constellation.
With its own, yet varied, weather patterns as well as the need to monitor the impact of climate change, environmental monitoring services – on top of those already provided as public goods by India, Japan, and the U.S. – are needed to save lives, provide relief when disasters and extreme weather occurs, and to mitigate the impact of such events to local and regional economies and trade. Companies such as Spire and exactEarth come to mind here.
Similarly, Earth observation and geospatial intelligence services and products, such as those provided by DigitalGlobe, Planet, and Orbital Insights are needed for everything from monitoring infrastructure operations and national security through to urban planning and land and ocean resource management. Air and maritime safety and security are also very important issues throughout the IOR, creating opportunities for space-based aviation and maritime domain awareness.
The United States and Australia, and increasingly India and Japan, are home to hundreds of established and New Space companies that are ideally placed to fill these market gaps. Furthermore, the Quad powers, perhaps through institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, could provide financing and other aid to IOR countries to assist them in procuring the services of commercial space companies.
Another idea might be to use Quad country commercial space companies to mentor IOR countries in the use of certain satellite functions, such as communications and geospatial products and services, for maximum economic, social, and environmental benefit in order to provide an alternative to China’s satellites for resource access strategy.
We should not be naïve about this geoeconomic completion throughout the IOR. Countries in the region, and understandably so, will look to gain as much for themselves from both China’s BRI and from whatever the Quad powers may have to offer. The point, however, is that an alternative form of infrastructure development and governance – to include in space and the use of satellites – is available to show a more meaningful and sustainable approach to economic and social development throughout the region.
There is also an added benefit to the Quad powers get collectively involved in the infrastructure and development business. As the ancient Silk Roads demonstrated, trade, development, and cultural discourse flourishes where there is a balance of power and productive competition among the more powerful nation. Ancient China, Persia, and Byzantium were forever in competition and conflict with each other, yet were wise enough most of the time to cooperate – even tacitly – in maintaining and securing the trade routes that crossed Eurasia at the time. Not only did their economies benefit, but, so to did the quality of the infrastructure and the lives and safety of those who used it. It was only when these ancient empires failed to cooperate, or when competition broke out into open conflict, did the Silk Roads whither and the transcontinental trade it enabled with it.
The geoeconomic competition between China’s BRI and the Quad powers is more than just about infrastructure and economic aid and development. The competition is a vehicle for each side’s preferred economic and political system of governance and vision for society. What better way to provide an alternative for IOR countries to China’s statist and authoritarian vision than to harness the commercial and technical assets of the Quad’s free and open space industries and expertise for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region?
John B. Sheldon, Ph.D., is the Chairman and President of ThorGroup GmbH, and publisher of SpaceWatch.Global.