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China launches a communications satellite for Pakistan

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 24, 2011

    China’s launch of Pakistan’s first communications satellite demonstrates a deepening of their technological cooperation.

    The year 2011 marks 60 years of diplomatic relationship between China and Pakistan. This all-weather relationship has largely withstood ‘the test of time’. Both states recognize the relevance of their cooperation in areas like security, trade and culture. All these years China has mostly followed the ‘friend of Pakistan policy’. From the Indian perspective the focus of their cooperation, which has mostly revolved around security issues, has been a source of anxiety. Apart from the question of direct military aid, India must also take note of China’s assistance to Pakistan in the field of science and technology as well since it has long-term strategic implications. China launched Pakistan’s first communications satellite (PAKSAT-1R) on August 12, 2011 on a Long March-3B carrier rocket. This event demonstrates the deepening in technological cooperation between these two states. For China this was also an event to display the capabilities of its rapidly growing commercial satellite industry.

    Over the years Pakistan has largely demonstrated a copycat syndrome (with reference to India) as far as programmes of strategic importance are concerned. Pakistan’s technological and industrial base is not well-established in comparison with India. Therefore, to match India, Pakistan has relied on foreign (overt or covert) help. In certain cases Pakistan also developed underground networks to ‘manage’ hardware/technology. However, Pakistan’s investments in space technologies have been minimal. This is somewhat surprising particularly, because it has a reasonably well-developed missile programme which, in fact, could have helped at least partially to build up an indigenous space programme.
    Pakistan’s lack of interest in space technology could be due to three reasons. Firstly, the Pakistani focus on long-term investments in technology has predominantly been military specific over the years. The use of technology for social, educational and scientific needs was not the prime focus. Secondly, Pakistan appears to have failed to anticipate the long-term strategic importance of space technologies. What is more surprising is the failure to understand the importance of space technologies particularly, in the background of the country’s nuclear ambitions. Thirdly, because of superfluous investments in military hardware, Pakistan was unable to make investments in space technology. Also, the state appears to have failed to realise the future commercial relevance of a space programme.

    Against this backdrop the launch of the made in China PAKSAT-1R with 30 transponders for the purposes of communications services marks a new beginning. This satellite would take care of broadband Internet, telecom and broadcasting services. It is expected to cover South Asia, Europe, West Asia and eastern Africa and is also likely to help in weather monitoring. Being a communication satellite its dual-use nature could offer strategic defence applications as well. Pakistan has been collaborating with China in the space arena since the 1990s. Its first satellite Badr-1 was launched by China on July 16, 1990 (on a Long March 2E rocket). However, during the span of the last two decades, Pakistan’s space programme has not made any significant progress baring two more satellite launches with outside help. Pakistan’s space agency called Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) was established in 1961 as a committee. It was upgraded into a Commission in 1981. But it has failed to make any significant progress.

    The August 2011 launch of a communication satellite opens a new chapter in Pakistan’s space history. Today, Pakistan has no launch vehicle of its own to launch satellites of any type. It has a long way to go in developing expertise in this arena as well as in satellite manufacture though the very first satellite was developed indigenously. Pakistan also needs to invest in the development of Spaceport and ground stations. All this will take time and its dependence on China is expected to increase in coming years.

    Since their border settlement pact of March 3, 1963 the relationship between these two neighbours of India has been steadily growing. In the field of space there was a pause for almost two decades particularly, in the high-end projects like satellite launches. However, during these years a certain degree of collaboration was underway for personnel training and infrastructure development. Pakistan’s inadequacy in the space field offers China an opportunity to take their strategic partnership to a higher plane and also simultaneously maintain its own commercial interests.
    For the last couple of years China has been using space technology to further its geopolitical as well as commercial interests. Now, Pakistan offers it an opportunity to use space engagement for strategic purposes as well. China has begun to help states like Nigeria and Venezuela with their satellite programmes. Also, recently China signed a deal with Bolivia for building and launching a satellite. In comparison with the western space agencies, China offers better commercial deals. Also, China has earned a prestige for its space programme with various successful space launches. Naturally, various developing states in the world are looking towards China.

    China’s space programme is surging ahead at a much faster rate than India's. Pakistan’s space programme is likely to remain in infancy for some more time to come. However, nuclear Pakistan is likely to pursue its space agenda (with China’s help) with more vigour in the future. On the military front, it is bound to benefit from various Chinese programmes like the navigational programme (COMPASS constellation). India needs to look at these developments seriously. Till date Pakistan’s space capabilities were probably not factored into India’s strategic planning, but that must change.