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By Jaganath Sankaran, Research Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School and Bharath Gopalaswamy, Deputy Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.

Sankaran and Gopalswamy spoke at the SAI and Asia Center Seminar ‘China-India Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?’ on Wednesday, February 26, 2014.

Is the perceived space race between India and China a reality, or just rhetoric?

The space exploration agenda of China and India have progressed rapidly in the last decade spanning from human spaceflight to missions to the Moon and Mars.  Their growing economies have made it possible to fund these programs at the level not conceivable before thereby stimulating the scientific community in both states to be more ambitious. The Indian Mars orbiter mission, for example, is the first by an Asian nation to successfully launch an orbiter on a path to the red planet—a feat accomplished only by the United States, Russia, and Europe. Similarly, China has been developing advanced capabilities of human space flight with the potential construction of a future manned space station —a feat accomplished only by the most advanced nations.

Noticeably, these advances have been accompanied by a desire to engage in space diplomacy—a “soft power” approach to obtain political concessions from other countries by limited sharing of space technology and launch services.  China, in particular, has more aggressively used its civilian space capabilities to garner favorable political outcomes. It has, for example, formed and led the Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) consisting of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey. China later donated a small satellite, the HJ-A/ Small Multi Mission Satellite (SMMS), to APSCO for its member nations to engage in space-based environmental monitoring.

India’s efforts at space diplomacy are more subtle. India has managed to establish cooperative programs with a wider variety of nation aimed at capability building. India has been to acquire access to advanced technology from countries like Israel (TECSAR)  and France (MEGHA-TROPIQUES)  banking on its reputation as a growing space power. Although China would prefer the same access to advanced Western technology, U.S. International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR) law inhibits it. The warming of U.S.-India relations, on the other hand, has made it easier for India to obtain such access.

In the sphere of military space competition  China is more actively responding to perceived U.S. threats to its security rather than to India. China views U.S. doctrines of “space superiority” and U.S. missile defense plans with suspicion, believing it to be target of such ambitious U.S. military doctrines. The 2007 Chinese Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test is widely construed as a warning shot—an  demonstration of its “hard power” space diplomacy—to the United States.


Watch a video of the seminar: