The growing strategic importance of outer space


Opening new avenues for space cooperation with the United States and Quad partners – Australia and Japan – in Washington last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi positioned India to commit to more productively in a rapidly changing field that is experiencing more trade and contestation. Delhi’s new strategic interest in space is based on the recognition of two important trends. One is the centrality of emerging technologies in shaping the 21st century world order. The other concerns the urgency of writing new rules on the way to peace and stability in space.

The new emphasis on space cooperation is part of a much larger technology agenda defined by India and its Quad partners. In the statement released after the bilateral talks, Modi and President Joe Biden called on India and the United States to “continue and expand their partnership in new areas and many areas of critical and emerging technologies – space , cyber, health security, semiconductors, AI, 5G, 6G and next generation telecommunications technologies, and blockchain, which will define innovation processes and the economic and security landscape of the next century ”.

Technological cooperation has always been an important part of Indo-American relations. But this is a boutique discourse between the relevant agencies of the two governments. As emerging technologies reorganize global economic and security structures, Delhi and Washington must now expand the technological interface. Certainly, officials in Delhi and Washington will have a key role to play in facilitating technological cooperation in these advanced areas. But it is the commercial sector that must dictate the pace of progress in India. And cross-border collaboration between Quad companies will be key to delivering the ambitious technology agenda presented in Washington last week.

The technological advances of the past two decades have also “produced” new areas of human activity. One is the “cyberspace” that animates so much of modern life and occupies so much political and political attention around the world. But the emergence of “outer space” as a strategic area has yet to receive the attention it deserves in Delhi.

Although human forays into space began in the mid-20th century, the intensity of this activity as well as its trade and security implications have increased dramatically in recent decades. As outer space becomes a place of lucrative business as well as a site of military competition between states, the importance of space cooperation among Quad members is likely to increase in the years to come.

Until now, the maritime domain has dominated the bilateral strategic cooperation between Delhi and Washington as well as within the Quad. The annual Malabar Naval Exercise, for example, began almost three decades ago as a bilateral undertaking in 1992 and became a quadrilateral in 2020 with the participation of Australia.

The idea for the Quad itself dates back to the spontaneous cooperation between the Indian, US, Australian and Japanese navies to respond to the massive humanitarian crisis triggered by the Boxer Day tsunami in the Eastern Indian Ocean in late 2004.

The rise, fall and resurrection of the Quad are also closely linked to the construction of a new maritime geography, the Indo-Pacific. The rise of China, the projection of its maritime power in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean encouraged the reimagining of the two oceans as a geopolitical continuum.

Last week’s talks in Washington present outer space as a new arena for space cooperation. Bilaterally, Delhi and Washington have agreed to step up space cooperation; and the Quad has set up a new working group to discuss space issues.

Until recently, outer space was the exclusive preserve of states. But private entities are now major players in space commerce. At the same time, as space becomes a critical factor in shaping the balance of military power on earth, competition between states intensifies.

The United States has traditionally dominated outer space in the commercial realm. Its military competition with Russia has set the standards in the field of security. The emergence of China as a great space power, both civilian and military, is reshaping astropolitics.

China’s dramatic expansion of space capabilities and Beijing’s ambition to dominate outer space have given new urgency to the democratic powers to unite to defend their national interests and promote a lasting order in the skies.

India, which has developed significant space capabilities over decades, is a deeply invested party. The United States recognizes that it can no longer unilaterally define the space order and is looking for partners. The joint Indo-American statement released in Washington underscored plans to finalize “a spatial situational awareness memorandum of understanding that will contribute to the sharing of data and services to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities. by the end of the year “.

International cooperation on spatial situational awareness is similar to maritime domain awareness agreements, which facilitate the sharing of information on a range of ocean parameters. India has enhanced its maritime knowledge through bilateral agreements as well as the Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Center (IFC-IOR) in Gurugram.

Space Situational Awareness (SSA) involves monitoring the movement of all objects – natural (meteors) and man-made (satellites) – and tracking space weather. If you think these are video game stuff, you are wrong. Today, space is an integral part of our lives and the disruption of space communications and Earth observation will have serious consequences.

Once signed, the agreement with the United States on SSA will be the first of its kind for India. Washington has agreements with more than two dozen countries on SSA. The US and Indian delegations also discussed a US initiative called the Artemis Accords, which aims to develop standards for activity on the Moon and other planetary objects. As commercial and military activity in space grows, twentieth-century agreements like the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty (1979) need to be strengthened and renewed.

Beyond the bilateral, the new space working group set up by the Quad “will identify new opportunities for collaboration and share satellite data for peaceful purposes such as climate change monitoring, disaster response and preparedness,” sustainable uses of oceans and marine resources, and on responding to challenges in shared areas ”. Quad leaders also pledged to “consult on rules, standards, guidelines and principles to ensure the sustainable use of outer space.”

The growing strategic importance of outer space demands substantial national political action in India. Delhi has undertaken some reforms in recent years, such as letting the private sector participate in space activity. It has also taken interim measures to deal with military challenges in space. It has also initiated a dialogue on space security with close partners such as the United States, Japan and France.

The scale of the challenges and opportunities in outer space, however, demands more urgent and radical reform. This can only be mandated by the highest political level. In 2015, Prime Minister Modi’s speech on the Indian Ocean focused national attention on maritime affairs. India could do with a similar intervention in space today.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 26, 2021 under the title “The New Spatial Order”. The writer is director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and associate editor on international affairs for The Indian Express


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