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Japan Eyes Space Cooperation With Malaysia As Balance To Chinese Influence In SE Asia

Satellite imagery of Malaysia. Image courtesy of Tomnod.

Japan is eyeing expanded space cooperation with Malaysia in a bid to deepen diplomatic and economic ties with the Southeast Asian country, and as part of an effort to balance against China’s powerful influence through such programmes as its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region.

Yoshikazu Shoji, director of the international relations and research department at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), told Malaysia’s New Straits Times that Malaysia has much to offer in any expanded space cooperation relationship given its extensive experience in building and operating satellites, the existence of the MEASAT satellite communications company, as well as having sent an astronaut, Datuk Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Sheikh Mustapha, to the International Space Station (ISS) for a nine day mission in 2007.

“With Malaysia’s experience in these sectors and the decades-old strong bilateral relationship between both countries, I reckon Malaysia can forge ahead in space science and beyond,” Shoji said, referencing Malaysia’s relationship with Japan.

“Given time, Malaysia may even have another man (or woman) in space,” added Shoji, against the backdrop of rumours that the Malaysian Space Agency (MySA) is considering sending its second astronaut to space by 2030.

“Japan will be delighted to be part of this ambitious plan and also to assist Malaysia to develop its indigenous rockets to launch satellites for weather, pollution, law enforcement, communication, radio-television applications and the like,” Shoji said. “Just as for other industries like automotive, robotics, systems automation, electronics, manufacturing and high-speed rail, Japan is willing to collaborate in Malaysia’s space development programme,” he added, referring to Japan’s extensive commercial presence in Malaysia.

The comments by JAXA’s Shoji come at a time when Malaysia is already looking at the space sector as a means of high-technology economic development as well as strategic autonomy. “We can’t rely on other people’s (satellites) all the way,” Azlikamil Napiah, Director-General of the Malaysian Space Agency, told the Nikkei Asian Review in December 2019. “We need to create a good ecosystem in our country, particularly in space technology…One day we will also need to have our own satellite, our own space sector.”

“Malaysia wants to be one of the aerospace nations by 2030,” Napiah added, as creating a space and satellite industrial base will have “more impact on the economic sector.” Yet Malaysian private sector will have to lead the way, according to Napiah, because “[t]he government can’t provide the cost all the way, because space technology is quite expensive.”

At present Malaysia is a member of the Asian Beneficial Collaboration through the Kibo Utilization Programme, where partner nations can cooperate with JAXA to carry out scientific experiments on the Kibo module of the ISS. The Universiti Putra Malaysia is working with JAXA in the analysis of optical glass fibre on radiation dosimeter on board the Kibo module.

“Japan sees ASEAN, which has nine per cent of the world’s population, as a rapidly growing economy with an important position globally,” Shoji pointed out. “These countries see space technology as a tool for economic development, human resource progress, search and development, and capacity-building initiatives that advance diverse links towards a new era.”

Japanese interest in space cooperation with Malaysia, as well as other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, stems in part from a perceived need to balance against and even counter growing Chinese influence and geoeconomic power throughout the region.

Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) China is ploughing large sums of money into Southeast Asian infrastructure and economic projects, often placing recipient countries into debt as well as having to accede to onerous terms and conditions. For many of these countries, Japan is often seen as a welcome and more cooperative partner on large and expensive projects.

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