India has made several strides in outer space over the decades. From simple sounding rockets to an upcoming crewed space mission, India has achieved success in various ways in outer space.India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is a civil space agency with a focus on the use of outer space for achieving developmental and scientific needs of the country. ISRO has, over the years, launched satellites, mainly of three broad types – navigation, communication and Earth Monitoring satellites. India also has a thriving space commerce industry with a scalable commercial success and visible increasing demand for services.

 

As increasing number of countries rely on outer space for various civil purposes. They have started to rely on countries like India that provide launch services for satellites, provisioning of data and communication slots. India has, over the years, established itself as a reliable service provider and offers its services to several countries. This has also boosted India’s credibility and diplomacy in outer space.

 

There are several other areas where India’s space capabilities and activities are beneficial for its overall foreign policy and diplomatic efforts. An important area is weather monitoring and Earth observation satellites. With the advent of climate change and deteriorating environmental conditions, countries have found outer space cooperation as a means to research on, prevent, and mitigate these challenges.These assets are important for national security because they enable weather forecasts (more critical in the case of natural hazards), map disaster-affected areas, and help monitor and manage natural resources etc.

 

Cooperation in terms of weather and earth monitoring is primarily about data sharing and common satellite programmes. India and France have entered several joint efforts and cooperation in the environmental domain. The two countries signed a pact in 2018 to address climate change and have expanded their cooperation in this field through the use of space capabilities. The pact includes exchange of information between the governments and experts in the field of environmental and climate change.  They have agreed on a Joint Vision for Space Cooperation. In this, one of the core areas of cooperation is the use of earth monitoring and remote sensing satellites, partnership in developing instruments for environment and climate research, data sharing for meteorology, oceanography, forestry etc. The two have also agreed to undertake joint missions for climate change research – the Megha-Tropiques and Saral-Altika being the most notable. They also intend to work on automatic identification system, land, ocean surveillance and so on.Such missions help countries in developing mechanisms and tools to mitigate and adapt to environmental change more effectively.

 

In another case that highlights the diplomatic dimensions of India’s space capabilities is its South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) satellite, GSAT – 9,which is an example of leveraging space for diplomatic gains in its immediate neighbourhood. It is a communication and meteorology satellite gifted by India to its SAARC counterparts as a part of its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. Apart from communication facilities, it provides data on weather, geology and meteorology among other features.Pakistan was also offered the satellite services. However, it declined the offer as it claimed that India refused to accept its collaborative efforts, besides raising security reasons about the initiative. There exist  other initiatives by Indiafor cooperation in Asia, such as the ISRO telemetry, tracking and command network (ISTRAC) that operates three overseas stations – in Brunei, Indonesia and Mauritius. ISRO has also established the India-Myanmar Friendship Centre for Remote Sensing in 2001.

 

Another domain in which India has adiplomatic stronghold in outer space is technological cooperation. India has cooperated with other countries regarding crucial space technologies. ISRO and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have been jointly developing a dual-frequency Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) called NISAR, for Earth observation satellites, the first of its kind. The satellite, which is expected to be launched in 2022, will be used to study earth and its phenomenon and regions. The data from the satellite would be extremely useful in tracking extreme weather conditions and hazards. India initially acquired the SAR capability from Israel’s state owned firm Israel Aerospace Industries through RISAT-2.Subsequently, India went on to develop its own indigenous SAR for its RISAT-1 satellite. India has also aimed for ambitious space missions such as Chandrayaan-3 lunar rover mission, Gaganyaan human spaceflight mission, Aditya L-1 solar missionetc., for which it will seek cooperation from other space faring leading nations for various aspects.

 

Joint efforts on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) are crucial as the danger of space debris and congestion has made space assets of every country vulnerable. ISRO and French Space Agency CNES have agreed to work together on SSA technologies such as enhanced sensorsand Automatic Identification System (AIS). The countries will also focus on the study of assets for maritime surveillance and engage in information sharing.

Increased use of outer space and growing number of space capabilities have several benefits for India. One big tilt in the perception of countries such as the United States (US) can be seen with regard to India’s outer space programme. During Kargil conflict in 1999, US refused to share the Global Positioning System (GPS) system with India and also imposed sanctions on other countries to keep India from procuring the cryogenic propulsion system in the wake of India’s nuclear weapons test. Whereas today a major shift in the US’ approach towards India’s space programme can be seen. Indo-US cooperation in outer space is reaching newer heights. India’s ambitions to engage with the major powers and emerge as a front-runner in science and technology are becoming increasingly visible. This can be perceived as increased credibility and reliability of India in the domain of space capabilities.

 

India’s demonstration of Anti-Satellite weapon (ASAT) capability in 2019 has made it a part of an elite club, as it is only the fourth country in the world to have this capability. With ASAT capability, India has declared its space deterrence capabilities to the world. ASAT demonstrations are a strong signal of a country’s ambitions and policy in outer space. In India’s case, it is aiming to assert itself and establish its all-round deterrence capabilities. Apart from deterrence, it also puts India in a position of agenda setting, as opposed to that of a norm follower. If any new treaty on the lines of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), for banning ASAT tests is proposed, India can put its own conditions and have a higher voice in negotiations since it cannot be denied the status of ade jure outer space power. An aspect of India’s ASAT demonstrations is that it conducted its testat an extremely low altitude so that the debris produced is minimum and short-lived, unlike the case of its predecessors. It demonstrates that India is very much aresponsible power in outer space.

 

Moreover, outer space activities also help India augment its efforts towards achieving the goals of several international frameworks such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (and the Sustainable Development Goals) and the Paris Agreement on climate change. This again gives India a higher bargaining power and position, as well as credibility of a reliable and responsible poweronthe diplomatic stage, especially since India has been seen as an ‘obstructionist’ player in the climate change negotiations in the past.

 

India’s perceptions as a space power has evolved over the years. With continuous demand and regular demonstration of reliability, India has achieved success with regard to space commerce as well as diplomacy. Outer space has become a crucial tool for foreign policy wherein India has managed to play its cards well. It helps India augment its foreign policy, diplomatic and technological objectives in the current state of international politics. Moreover, it opens several new areas of cooperation as well as power projection.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.