The South Asia Satellite, also known as GSAT-9, is a geostationary communications and meteorology satellite operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region. The satellite was launched by Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Narendra Modi mooted the idea of a satellite serving the needs of SAARC member nations as a part of his Neighbourhood first policy. India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka are the users of the multi-dimensional facilities provided by the satellite.
Pakistan initially gave a “cold response” to the project but later offered “monetary and technical support”. India rejected Pakistani offers, saying that it wanted the project to be a “gift” and multi-national collaboration would be time consuming. As a result, Pakistan declined to participate in the project. So the project was renamed to ‘South Asia Satellite’ (from SAARC satellite). Experts say “Pakistan has missed an opportunity” since its own space programme is currently in a primitive stage as compared to India’s. This is despite the fact that Pakistan actually launched its first rocket five years ahead of India and its space agency Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) is older than ISRO. Pakistan has had five satellites in space, but lacks heavy duty launchers and satellite fabrication facilities. But will India’s strident regional space diplomacy yield results?
The South Asia Satellite provides crucial information on tele-medicine, tele-education, banking and television broadcasting opportunities. It is also equipped with remote sensing state of the art technology which enables collection of real-time weather data and helps in observations of the geology of the South Asian nations.
During the Indian general elections campaign in 2014, Prime Minister Modi hinted that his foreign policy will actively focus on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbours which is being termed as Neighbourhood first policy in the Indian media. Modi invited all heads of state/heads of government of SAARC countries during his swearing-in ceremony as Prime Minister of India and held bilateral talks with all of them individually, which was dubbed a “mini SAARC summit” by the media. India has an active space programme dating back to 1965, and in 1975, became the first South Asian nation to launch a satellite.
One month after sworn in as Prime Minister of India, in June 2014 Modi asked ISRO to develop a South Asian satellite, which can be dedicated as a ‘gift’ to the neighbours. He asked the scientists to work on a satellite that would provide a full range of applications and services to all of India’s neighbours. Modi said, “There is a lot of poverty in the SAARC nations and we need scientific solutions for this”.
Seven heads of states from South Asia unanimously applauded India’s Rs 450 crore gift to its neighbours by way of a communications satellite.
During the Cold War, achievements in outer space were viewed as demonstrations of power and ideological reputation. For instance, when the Soviet Union broadcast its technological competence by launching the first ever man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the world stood up and took notice. The United States followed suit with its Apollo program and achieved mankind’s first moon landing in 1969. Winning the race to be first somewhere in outer space mattered a great deal then.
Since then, however, dynamics have changed. Today, countries like India and China link their outer space programs not to achieving global “firsts” but to their advancing their economic development and wielding diplomatic influence here on Earth. For instance, Chinese President Xi Jinping believes that China’s investment in outer space will enhance scientific innovation, boost creative entrepreneurial success, and create long-term prosperity for the Chinese nation. With this in mind, China is encouraging private outer space start-ups like Landspace and Onespace to enter the lucrative commercial market of outer space launches.
India, another major Asian space power, is also encouraging privatization of its space program. In a substantial move, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) stated in February 2016 that ISRO will privatize its flagship Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) by 2020 in order to expand technological capability and increase launches from 12 to 18 annually.
There is no precedent in the space-faring world of a free, regional communications satellite being gifted like this, and it shows India has a large heart. The fight against the poverty of the countries of SAARC is the fight against illiteracy, the fight against superstitions, the challenge of moving forward in the scientific field is the possibility of providing opportunities to young people of SAARC countries.
The South Asia Satellite has 12 Ku band transponders which India’s neighbours can utilize to increase communications. Each country will get access to at least one transponder through which they could beam their own programming and there could be common ‘south Asian programming’ as well.
Each country has to develop its own ground infrastructure though India is willing to extend assistance and know-how. According to the government the satellite will “enable a full range of applications and services to our neighbours in the areas of telecommunication and broadcasting applications viz. television, direct-to-home (DTH), very small aperture terminals (VSATs), tele-education, telemedicine and disaster management support”.
The satellite also has the capability to provide secure hot lines among the participating nations in addition since the region is highly prone to earthquakes, cyclones, floods, tsunamis, it may help in providing critical communication links in times of disasters.
Among India’s neighbours, three nations already possess full-fledged communication satellites, with Pakistan and Sri Lanka having been helped by China; Afghanistan also has a communication satellite (which was an old India-made satellite acquired from Europe). Bangladesh is likely to have its first bird in the sky later this year, made with help from Thales.
Essentially, it is the tiny nations of Bhutan and Maldives that may benefit in the long run. Incidentally, Nepal has already floated a tender to acquire two communications satellites.
As China and India steers their space programs toward commercialization, they are also increasingly using outer space for regional diplomacy. Diplomacy is defined as “the established method of influencing the decisions and behavior of foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence.” Both India and China are utilizing their advanced space programs to offer services to countries in their strategic neighborhoods, with the foreign policy goal of developing both influence and goodwill.
China has already helped both Pakistan and Sri Lanka launch communication satellites and is in talks with Maldives, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Nepal on future satellite launches. Bangladesh is launching its own satellite, Bangabandhu-1, working in collaboration with a European space agency. Clearly, India and China are both aiming to utilize their growing expertise in outer space as a mechanism to enhance their diplomatic reach and display their regional largesse. India, aware of China’s space cooperation with South Asian nations, perhaps offered the “South Asia Satellite” as a cost-effective alternative. A similar outer space initiative has not yet been launched by India with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, but it is a likely possibility given ISRO’s growing focus on privatization and commercialization of its outer space activities.
There is no doubt that through the South Asia Satellite, India is actively trying to counter China’s growing influence on its neighbours. But in the 21st-century Asian space race, China already has the first mover advantage. Better late than never is prevailing mood and for this unique space diplomacy it is almost certain that India is likely to get applauded by the world’s powers for this one of a kind friendly confidence building measure.
Hopefully friendly skies can result in reduced hostilities on Earth.
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Published By: Mr. Pramod Singh, Course Director, IAS Edge, 9th Sep-2017 at 4:50 PM