For 25 years, Space stations and GPS satellites have been mapping the outer space 12,000 miles above the earth’s surface. Space has always been an unchartered territory in the international order. Due to high economic costs and heavy investments, space technology and ‘stratosphere diplomacy’ is a privilege only for developed nations and world leaders. With humanity evolving into interplanetary beings there is an unprecedented call from developing countries for commercialisation and democratisation of space economy. A large section of scientists and global policymakers believe that space can act as a driver to address global challenges by improving relations on Earth by exploring space. However, for sustainable development of the world, it is of paramount importance that every economy has equal access to space.
Within a month of coming into power, Modi 2.0 is reshaping its neighbourhood policy. A powerful and prosperous neighbourhood is vital for economic cooperation and national security of India. Neighbourhood diplomacy in this context may be defined as “the established method of influencing the decisions and behaviour of foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence.”Today, India is looking at space as a domain to enhance diplomatic influence in the South-Asian region.
In 2018, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced that it is planning to send humans for the first time in space by 2022 while its ambitious project Chandrayan 2 will be completed in 2019 with the landing of an indigenous spacecraft. Within a month of the announcement, India successfully launched the PSLV-C43/HysIS mission (India-Colombia joint initiative) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. This was a compelling signal to other developing countries who were looking at the United States for space and military matters that the Indian Space agency has the capability of achieving inter-planetary missions in a cost-effective manner. This came as a godsend after the successful Mars Mission which made India a global leader in cost-effective but state-of-the-art space technology. ISRO and NASA are also jointly working on the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission to co-develop and launch a dual frequency synthetic aperture radar satellite by 2021. The satellite will be the world’s most expensive earth-imaging satellite to date, costing around $1.5 billion.
With multiple MoUs for inter-planetary missions and technological advancements in rocket propulsion coupled with a strong government at the centre, India is strengthening its space diplomacy. India’s focus on the neighbourhood-first policy will not be constructive unless it orchestrates the pack in innovation and infrastructure. With the Indian economy growing at 7 per cent, India is now the fastest growing large economy in the region. But the influence in the South-Asian region is not limited to domestic economics. Considering the geopolitics in the region, India has been constantly taking efforts for the collective development of neighbouring nations by strategic research and military innovation. India’s diplomacy of interlinking space research with regional cooperation is crucial to counter China’s influence in the region.
Addressing a press conference in New Delhi last week, ISRO chief K Sivan said, “India is planning to launch its own space station. India will not join the International Space Station. The ambitious project which will enable the agency to send more humans to space when executed.”He said the mission will also be an extension of the Gaganyaan project implying that there will be several phases to the human space mission project. The Central Government has already sanctioned ten thousand crore rupees for this Mission, which is being guided by the Gaganyaan National Advisory Council that has eminent scientists and persons as members.
Earlier China along with Pakistan, Bangladesh and a number of other countries had set up a regional partnership organization called the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, with projects that include sharing data, establishing a space communication network, and tracking space objects. India’s decision not to join the International Space Station has sent a clear message of its technological independence and capacity to work alone in the field. The move is expected to attract many emerging economies to lend their support to India, who otherwise would have been mere scapegoats with global players at the benefitting end.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure as an important goal. Indian space technology’s advantage lies in cost-effectiveness and high performance. Applications of space technology in areas such as infrastructure, disaster management and security are expected to ease the lives of common people and improve the delivery of Government’s welfare programmes. The Indian soft power-based space diplomacy aims not just to cater to the domestic development needs of neighbouring countries but also to further India’s interest in the immediate neighbourhood.