In a surprising development, Pakistan has decided to opt out of the ambitious South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) satellite project, mooted by India to help the member countries of SAARC block, derive benefits from the application of space technology for the societal benefits. According to media reports, Islamabad conveyed its decision to move out of this satellite project during the recently held meeting of the senior diplomats of the SAARC block at Pokhara in Nepal. In this context, Vikas Swarup, spokesman of India’s External Affairs Ministry says, “Pakistan has decided to opt out of the satellite project. Consequently, there is a proposal to rename the satellite, and the project is likely to be known as South Asia Satellite”. This satellite project happens to be a major initiative by India to boost space cooperation among the south Asian countries.
Significantly, moments after the June 2014 successful launch of India’s four stage trusted space workhorse, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), from the Indian spaceport in Sriharikota island, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a gathering of Indian space scientists, had called upon them for sharing “the fruits of our technological advancement with those who don’t enjoy the same”. Stretching this logic further, Modi had called upon Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to take up an initiative to develop and deploy a satellite system dedicated to providing a range of services to the neighbouring SAARC countries.
In fact, during the initial stages, Pakistan had evinced a keen interest in the SAARC satellite project which will now cover seven other SAARC member countries— India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal; the sudden volte face by Pakistan appears rather intriguing. Officially, Pakistan is known to have conveyed its reservation over the safety and security aspect of the SAARC satellite project. But to what extent the apprehension expressed by Pakistan mirrors ground reality, no one is sure as yet. This is not to suggest that satellites are immune to interferences and hacking.
Significantly, last year, India had out-rightly rejected the Pakistani offer of “technical and financial” help for the realization of the SAARC satellite project. Perhaps this could have miffed Pakistan. On another front, Pakistan also wanted the satellite project to be taken up at the regional level. But then India, which considers SAARC satellite project as “gift to the neighbouring countries”, did not oblige Pakistan on this count too. Perhaps all these reasons could have nudged Pakistan to call off its participation in this imaginatively conceived regional satellite project. Of course, India has made it plain that it is very much open to consultations and suggestions for improvement from other SAARC member countries.
Perhaps the modest advances Pakistan has made in the area of space technology with the assistance of China could be yet another reason for its opting out of the satellite project. Of course, Pakistan is nowhere near India in terms of building and launching advanced state of the art satellites for a variety of end uses. For sure Pakistan is yet to qualify a basic space vehicle for orbiting satellites. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmospheric Research Commission (SUPARCO) is building a remote sensing satellite which is likely to be launched in 2018, most likely by means of a Chinese space vehicle.
Diplomatic experts speculate that Pakistan may not like to appear as playing a secondary role to an Indian sponsored satellite project. Even so, the latest Pakistani move on SAARC satellite project looks quite enigmatic. However, another logically sound possibility that could explain the Pakistani move is the perception that the Indian plan to build and launch a satellite meant to benefit SAARC countries could serve as an instrument to blunt the edge of China’s plan to strengthen space cooperation with South Asian countries including Maldives and Sri Lanka. Pakistan, being China’s “all weather friend” could have taken this extreme step to keep China in good humour. Significantly, the legal groundwork for the satellite project was laid in September 2015 when the Indian ocean island nation of Sri Lanka signed the first orbit frequency coordination agreement with India.
It was during the 2014 November SAARC summit that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the proposal to build and launch a satellite that would benefit countries in the South Asia region. According to A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman, ISRO, the Indian space agency is planning to launch the satellite by end 2016. This dedicated satellite, being designed and developed by ISRO, will provide weather watch and communications services to SAARC countries. Through this satellite project India hopes to consolidate its diplomatic clout while at about the same time projecting its soft power in the South Asia region. The satellite has been designed to play a key role in the development of region that is prone to natural calamities.
But then going beyond SAARC satellite initiative, India should look at competing in the multi-million dollar global space market by leveraging the cost factor and its globally recognised expertise in space technology. Of course, in the context of China spreading its influence across a part of the third world through a quiet space diplomacy based on an offer of alluring space co-operation package, India cannot afford to remain a silent spectator. For instance, Nepal, where anti-India feelings are significant, is said to be looking at China for its proposed domestic satellite system. Here, India needs to step up its diplomatic initiative to lure this Himalayan state away from the Chinese influence and convince it of the efficacy of getting a range of services provided by the satellites being operated by ISRO.
And much to the relief of India, Bangladesh inked a deal with French defence and aerospace firm, Thales Alenia Space, for its satellite project named Bangabandhu. Not long back, there were reports to suggest that China could bag the Bangladesh satellite order. Unfortunately, due to the lack a sufficiently robust, heavy-lift launch capability, India could not compete for the proposed satellite system of Maldives with which it has enjoyed a long and cordial relationship .
On its part, the island nation of Sri Lanka has already taken a plunge by inking a contract for a Chinese-made satellite system. The Sri Lanka-based Supreme SAT, described as an integrated satellite operator, has contracted the China Great Wall Industries Corporation (CGWIC), the business arm of the Chinese space venture, for the in-orbit delivery of Supreme SAT-II communications satellite involving a price tag of US $215-million. Using Supreme SAT-II, which is planned to be launched sometime next year, Supreme SAT plans to offer a range of satellite-based services to customers in Asia and Africa .
With a view to projecting its soft power through the sharing of its space expertise, India is looking at the possibility of setting up a ground station in Fiji that could ultimately serve as a hub for sharing space expertise with the Pacific island nations. ISRO already operates ground stations in Mauritius, Brunei and Indonesia to help track the Indian satellites launched from Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota Island on India’s eastern coast.
Interestingly, New Delhi has offered to share Indian space expertise with the countries in the South East region where China, Japan, Australia and USA are jockeying to acquire a strategic edge. Against this backdrop, the Indian plan to set up a state-of-the-art satellite monitoring station in Vietnam has attracted Chinese ire. China’s political leadership views the satellite data reception-cum-tracking and telemetry station in Ho Chi Min city as a “clear cut attempt to stir up trouble in the disputed South China Sea region”. The US$ 23-million ground station at Ho Chi Min city being set up with the help of ISRO, when fully commissioned, will be linked-up with the existing Indian satellite tracking station at Biak in Indonesia. China is concerned that the link up of ground stations would give India a significant advantage in the South China Sea region.
“SAARC Satellite Project: Pakistan Decides to Opt Out”, Indian Express, March 23.