India on guard in fallout from China's missile test

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 2007, 12:00am


China's anti-satellite weapons test has cast a shadow over Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing's four-day official visit to nuclear neighbour India, which begins today.

The prime objective of Mr Li's trip is to hold talks with his Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, for implementing the 10-point trade plan agreed upon by China and India during President Hu Jintao's landmark visit in November to normalise relations between the two countries. Also on Mr Li's agenda is the inauguration of a hotline between the foreign ministers of the nuclear-armed neighbours.

But analysts in New Delhi say that Mr Li - the senior-most Chinese official to visit India since the January 11 anti-satellite test - will be forced by his hosts to spend more time and energy addressing India's gnawing fears over security than talking about the execution of the 10-point plan or the new hotline.

By all accounts, India's security establishment is bristling with anger over the test, in which China fired a ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile to destroy one of its own ageing weather satellites 865km above Earth, scattering debris that could damage other satellites. The move sparked alarm around the world, with the United States, European Union, and Japan voicing concerns about the safety of their satellites in orbit, dangerous space debris and escalating military rivalry in space.

But India believes that its own assets in space, like satellites, are particularly vulnerable after China's sudden demonstration of its satellite-killing capability because of the legacy of distrust and suspicion between the Asian giants who fought a full-fledged war in 1962 and have yet to demarcate their border.

Analysts say that although bilateral ties have improved steadily since the early 1990s, the hangover persists. They believe that India still suffers from an acute persecution complex instilled by the scale of its defeat in 1962.

Ahead of Mr Li's visit, the Indian Air Force is reportedly piling pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to set up a new aerospace defence command to guard the country's assets in outer space. According to some accounts, Air Chief Marshal Shashindra Pal Tyagi, has already started training a core group of people for a new aerospace command, without waiting for formal government approval.

Air Marshal Tyagi told the Bengali daily Anand Bazar Patrika: 'Space is the new battleground. A war cannot be ruled out if missiles are fired in outer space.'

Defence scientist B. R. Srikant says that the Chinese test has suddenly galvanised India's aerospace plans. New Delhi is clearly worried as China is only the third country in the world, after US and Russia, to acquire the military capability to knock out satellites.

Addressing the Association of Indian Diplomats in New Delhi last Wednesday, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a rocket scientist, revealed that India had about 50 communication, eight remote sensing and several scientific satellites in orbit.

Voicing concern about their safety, Mr Kalam said: 'Space is not anybody's property. There must be complete peace in space.'

Earlier, India's premier Dr Singh had said that 'India is totally opposed to the weaponisation of outer space'.

While Mr Kalam and Dr Singh did not name China, G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, did not mince his words. Lambasting Beijing, he said: 'China should not have destroyed a satellite. It's against international convention. Nobody is allowed to weaponise outer space. Moreover, killing a satellite creates a lot of debris.'

But security and strategic affairs analyst Indrani Bagchi noted in The Times of India that New Delhi's 'real concern is not so much the space debris but China's technological leap', which could enable the communist giant to bring down Indian surveillance and reconnaissance satellites and target its civilian space programme.

According to a spokesman of the Prime Minister's Office, the Strategic Policy Group (SPG), India's highest security body, has already met twice in the wake of the Chinese test to assess the country's defence preparedness. The group has reportedly assigned to the defence and foreign ministries the task of deciding on India's response to the Chinese test.

Mr Li's official host, Mr Mukherjee told an aerospace seminar held by the air force that 'it is in everybody's interest to preserve outer space as a sanctuary from weapons and guard it as the common, peaceful heritage of mankind'.

Mr Mukherjee sent another significant message barely a few days before Mr Li's arrival warning China to stay clear of the Indian Ocean and India's strategic waters.

China's interest in extending its influence in this area is not new, but analysts say that Mr Hu's visit to the Seychelles - following intense Chinese interest in Myanmar and Africa's Indian Ocean countries - compelled New Delhi to publicise its disapproval.

Addressing the seminar, Mr Mukherjee said: 'We have a strong stake in the security and stability of these waters, which is linked to energy security, since a large percentage of Asian oil and gas supplies are shipped through the Indian Ocean.'

India has a deep interest in policing sea lanes in Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait for controlling energy supplies to East Asia.

Ahead of Mr Li's visit, New Delhi is also upset by a Chinese official's opinion that India was responsible for triggering the 1962 war. The comment, by Hong Kong-based Lau Nai-keung, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was published last week in the state-run China Daily, and reported by Indian newspapers.