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Space Technology and Soft-Power: A Chinese Lesson for India

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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  • October 05, 2009

    China has completed 60 successful years of Communist party rule. While the journey was marred by many upheavals, the last few years have been witness to an unprecedented ‘Rise of China’. China has emerged as one of the biggest economies of the world. It showcased its ‘power’ with the successful conduct of the 2008 Olympics, and followed it up with a spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut (taikonaut). In these sixty years China has been mostly viewed as a country making significant investments in military infrastructure, engaging in arms sales, having a poor record in proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and a country with disregard for human rights. China’s engagement in hostilities with many of its neighbours has led to the view that it is a country with ‘aggressive’ intent. China’s ‘image’ thus has been that of a country wanting to influence the world through military and/or economic coercion or what is called as Hard-Power.

    However, China has also been quietly making investments in some non-military fields with a view to engaging other nations. Space Technology is one area where China is engaging developing nations by providing them assistance to either develop their space programme or to launch satellites on their behalf. It is in this regard that India can look at the ‘China model’ for inspiration and start an effort towards connecting with other states.

    India has a robust space programme and has made some significant progress in this field. A case in point is the recent finding of water on the surface on the moon by Chandrayan 1, which has helped the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to demonstrate the country’s leadership in the field of science and technology. ISRO could even send a human being to the moon within a few years. What is equally important is for India to use the space programme as a tool for increasing its international influence. This is where India can take a leaf out of the Chinese book.

    India is already working with a few international partners like NASA, but such partnerships are more from the point of view of technology collaboration. Such collaborations are a must in fields like going to the Moon and Mars. But at the same time there is a need to engage other countries who are novices in this field. Today, there are many countries in the world who wish to collaborate with India in the space arena. India should engage with these countries in their space projects at various levels. Indirectly, this could offer India a form of ‘security’ that is beyond tanks, fighter jets and nuclear deterrence. It would help India increase its influence over other states through non-military means.

    This is what “Soft-Power” is all about. A term coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University, Soft-Power could be defined as the ability of a state to get what it wants by attracting and persuading others to adopt its goals. India’s success in space is attracting others to emulate it. This is an opportunity that India should not waste. And this opportunity goes much beyond India’s existing commercial space policy.

    For the last few years China is using its space industry to extend its Soft-Power. It is establishing linkages in the space arena with countries in Africa and South America, including Nigeria, Venezuela, and Brazil. China’s ultimate objectives are the natural resources and markets in these parts of the world. China is talking its friendship with Pakistan to a higher plane by helping the latter in the space field as well. It signed an agreement with Pakistan a fortnight back, granting a $200 million loan for satellite construction. China has also promised Bolivia help in developing its space programme within three years and in the launch of its first satellite. It has also been reported that China would be building and launching a communications satellite for Laos.

    China is strategically positioning itself as a focal point for all space-related activities, from providing financial assistance to manufacturing, and launching facilities for states in Asia, Africa and South America. This approach has multiple benefits – an increase in China’s global footprint, flow of benefits to the Chinese space industry, experimentation with new technologies, and win friends.

    International politics is thus more than the mere acquisition and use of “Hard-Power”. This is what India needs to learn from the Chinese example of collaboration in the space arena. India has a technologically superior and an economically affordable space programme. The growth of its commercial space sector is commendable. Many courtiers are depending on India for launching their satellites. It is essential that India begins to engage space have-nots at a different level, beyond technological and commercial interests. There is a need to influence states for political and strategic purposes by using space technology as a tool. India should steadily and subtly use its ‘space acumen’ to extend its Soft-Power status on earth.