Outer-space: A new dimension of India-China ‘Power Disparity’

The characteristics of a conflict changes over time but the fundamental concept of ‘Balance of power’ in an International system remains the same. In the anarchy of the international system, the most reliable break on the power of one state is the power of other states[i]. A common result of ‘power struggle’ among the states- the dispute over territory has shifted from territorial border to outer-space now. In 1967, the “Outer space treaty” came into effect by providing basic framework on international law which emphasizes on peaceful exploration and use of outer space for the benefit of all mankind[ii]. Initially, the treaty was signed between the Russian Federation, The United Kingdom and the United States of America, which prohibited carrying weapons of mass destruction into orbit as well as conducting military exercises and weapons tests on celestial bodies. However, the norms of the 1967 space treaty have been challenged due to a new ‘security dilemma’ with intensified activities in outer space by states and non-states actors. Alternating the original ‘Balance of Power’ between the USA and Russia, China has emerged as an influential power in space by making remarkable progress in space programs. Certainly, China’s ambition in space alarms all states particularly the neighboring state India as New Delhi has been playing a key role to counterbalance

Beijing’s power in the South-East Asia. Why is it important for India to play the key role in ‘Balance of Power’ to prevent China from becoming the dominant power in outer-space?

A threat to National Security

Recently, a senior US Space Force General B Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations for the service said that China is emerging as a major threat to satellites and military operations in space[iii].

It reflects that China has potential to influence behavior of other states in outer-space. As China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) operates directly under the department of the Central Military Commission, China’s space capability is directly linked to the military strategy of People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Under President Xi Jinping, China has become a leading player in space by making a major breakthrough in space program. China’s achievement in space combined with its ‘Wolf-Warrior’ diplomacy has alerted all other states and jeopardized traditional norms of space programs. Chinese Defence White Paper (2019) noted space as “a critical domain of international strategic competition.” In 2022, the construction of its space station the Tiangong orbital station was completed which comprises the Tianhe core and two laboratory modes- Wentian and Megtian.  China placed itself in second position after the US in launch activity in 2022 by launching 64 orbital rockets. The goal CMSA in 2023 is to launch over 200 spacecraft and develop the Chang’e 7 lunar spacecraft and Tianwen 2 asteroid-comet mission. According to experts the PLA could park military equipment systems in space or use satellites for surveillance of the ground.

In view of realism, military capability is one of the most important element of National Power.

If China’s motive is to militarize space, it will create a long-term instability in the Southeast Asia.

Since the Galwan clash in Ladakh in 2020, the border tension between India and China has intensified with multiple clashes between the Indian Army and the PLA. China’s slow economic growth hasn’t restricted its military aggression in Taiwan and the South China sea. Due to a paucity of transparency it is difficult to predict how China is going to use outer-space capability for military interest. In Future India will have to take counter measures in highly complex environment with China. China’s ambition in space is a threat to India’s national security.

Why does China lead India in space?

For both the states China and India, space aspiration is driven by nationalism but both of them have different strategies and priorities for development of space capabilities. While the Indian Space Research Organization was established in 1969, China National Space Administration (CNSA) is a young organization established in 1993. Despite having less experience in space, China became the first nation to reach the far side of the Moon with Chang’e 4. The progress made by China in Lunar and Mars capacity reflects its strong position in critical infrastructure in space. Contrariwise, India’s space goal was neither linked with warfare capabilities nor had India an objective to become a super power in space. ISRO has advanced in satellite launching, sending astronauts to Low Earth orbit and missions to the Moon and Mars. In comparison to China, India’s progress in critical infrastructure in space is moderate.

In China, the space sector has commercialized over last few years with more than 100 companies. China has articulated an annual US $ 10 trillion Earth-Moon economy by 2050. In contrast the investment in India’s space program seems like inadequate. Recently, India’s initiative to liberalize its space sector by establishing India Space Association, an industrial body along with ISRO implies the objective government to shift its approach in space towards National security. 

Though currently India accounts for only 2% of the global space economy, by 2030 India aims to increase its share by 9%. On the other hand, China already holds the second position in space economy after the USA.

As China’s domestic policy is related to its foreign policy, it is unquestionable that China will utilize outer-space for its economic growth. If India commercialize space sector, it will be a slower process. That makes China a rising power in space. However, India’s space program is reputedly the most cost effective and a focused drive towards enhancing the scope along with requisite investment can give a fillip to its space prowess.

Future Struggle:

There is no doubt that outer-space capability will be a major long-term power resources in future. The 1967 space treaty may be inadequate to establish stability in space. Particularly private entities are not bounded by the Outer space treaty. As China is keen to attain a global leadership position in space, it will enhance the threat to India in a direction where it may not be fully prepared as on date. Additionally, China’s aggressive behaviour in outer-space will create an instability in the South-East Asia. The urgency towards understanding the path chosen by China and amending policies to take necessary counter measures is imminent. India’s national security apparatus must be enabled to take on this rising challenge head on with adequate resources and planning. The growing partnership between China-Russia will be another impediment for the whole region. Hence, it is important for India to make space alliance in the region. Space diplomacy is the need of the hour to have mid-course corrections and give a boost to India’s space capabilities. Self-reliance in this field in sync with Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan is a guarantee for India to be capable of taking an independent stand for its sovereignty. In the continued ‘Balance of Power’, New Delhi should realise what the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu says,” If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of hundred battles.”

[i] (Jon C. W. Pevehouse, 2018)

[ii] https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/introouterspacetreaty.html

[iii] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2023/feb/22/inside-ring-space-force-leader-b-chance-saltzman-w/

Archana Sharma
Archana Sharma
I am a freelance Geopolitical Research Analyst. My area of research includes Foreign policy and Space diplomacy. I hold a Master's degree in Diplomacy, Law and Business and a Bachelor degree in Electronics and communication engineering.