India and China have different space aims

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 October, 2008, 12:00am

It is wrong to assume that India's gamble for the moon - coming hot on the heels of China's first space walk - signifies competition between the Asian giants. They have completely contrasting aims.

India's are primarily economic: it views space as an arena for poverty alleviation and trade. China seeks to pre-empt the militarisation of space by the US.

Nor is the timing of India's launch a coded message to China. Science runs to its own timetable and cannot be geared to coincide with programmes in another land. The experiment - India's first - is a technology demonstrator to try to boost India's share of the lucrative global satellite launch market.

Last year, India successfully launched the civilian PSLV-C7 rocket. Its payload included Indonesian and Argentinian satellites, indicating the scope for profitable commercial co-operation among less developed nations. India hopes to recreate in space its business outsourcing success, undercut the satellite-launch cartel dominated by Russia, the US and the European Space Agency, and ultimately capture that market.

India has always viewed space not as an arena to prove itself but as a commercial zone. Lacking the means to enter it, India opened itself to assistance from anyone able and willing to help. The strategy paid dividends with the two competing space powers of the day - the Soviet Union and US - only too anxious to help for their own cold war reasons.

American help enabled India to develop a remote sensing Earth observation satellite system essential to eradicate poverty in a country that is still predominantly engaged in farming and livestock breeding in hard-to-reach terrain.

Today, India has a constellation of remote sensing satellites rivalled only by the US. Indians in the barren interior watched TV and got weather information for the first time thanks to a leased Nasa communications satellite. India's first regular communications satellite was also US-made. Meanwhile, Indian cosmonauts blasted off on Soviet rockets from Star City Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

But co-operation was not always smooth. The US objected to Russia supplying India with cryogenic engines and imposed sanctions in 1993, citing the weaponisation of space. Still lacking a space weapons programme, India accused the US at the time of trying to scuttle an incipient economic competitor.

In contrast, China's space programme is motivated - in part - by the failure of its decade-old policy to prevent space being militarised. Beijing followed up its policy guideline stating space belonged to all mankind and ought to be used only for peaceful purposes by repeatedly urging the US to sign a binding international agreement on preventing an arms race in space.

To assume that the architects of India's programme operate under the same principles of rivalry that drove the west is to assume that Indians and Chinese are just replaying history. The history of Asia's space programme dissolves that myth.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian and commentator on Asian affairs.