India and China: time for co-operation in space exploration?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 3:46am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 3:46am


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Amid the fireworks and lanterns of Diwali, one of India's most important festivals, the nation has embarked on its most ambitious space mission yet - sending a probe to Mars. Costing a fraction of the millions of firecrackers sent skyward during the five-day occasion, the US$74 million rocket launched yesterday carries, along with its orbiter, pride and scientific prowess. If successful, the country's space agency will become only the fourth after Russia, the US and the European Space Agency (ESA) to have attained the goal. That is certainly cause for celebratory flag-waving for Indians, but with space rival China watching closely, the implications go far beyond research, nationalism and point-scoring.

China, which on October 15 marked the 10th anniversary of its first manned space mission, next month begins another stage of its programme, sending a rover to the moon. Scientists have their sights set on putting Chinese on the lunar surface in the next 15 years. India had planned that for 2016, but has since backed away to focus on commercial ventures. But by pushing ahead with the Mars probe, New Delhi has shown it is still concerned about prestige. There are shades of the finance-draining space race that the US and the former Soviet Union were locked in at the height of the cold war.

The governments of mainland China and India are not the only ones in Asia interested in space. Japan and South Korea also have well-advanced programmes, while Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are expanding their capabilities. There are a myriad benefits of space exploration, but in the case of China and India there is also the risk of fuelling regional tensions, militarisation and confrontation.

Critics argue both nations would do better spending the billions on social programmes. India's economy is faltering and some citizens believe the resources and energy of the Mars project would be better directed towards public health or solar energy. There is significant duplication in the two countries' efforts. As was realised by the US and Soviet Union in the 1970s after two decades of fierce space rivalry, it would make more sense to co-operate than compete.

The International Space Station came from such co-operation, as did the ESA after 18 European countries pooled resources. China and India have pledged to work for closer ties and a resolution to their border dispute. In that spirit, they would benefit by joining their talents for space exploration.