Sri Lanka's first communication satellite is expected to be launched on November 22, 2012 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China. This geostationary satellite would get operational by mid-2013 for commercial purposes. The satellite is partly owned by a private company, Sri Lanka's first Satellite Company called SupremeSAT. The cost of the project is expected to be around US$ 360 million. According to the Chairman of the company, the project is a joint venture with two Chinese companies, China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) and Sino Satellite Communications Company Ltd. The project also includes the construction of a satellite Content Management Station and a Space Academy at Kandy.
CGWIC is China's State-owned company and is assisting SupremeSAT (Pvt) Ltd with regard to design, manufacturing and launching of the satellite. The Sri Lankan company also has plans to launch a fully owned satellite in December 2015. In August 2012 the foundation stone for the proposed Space Academy of SupremeSAT was laid at Kandy by China’s Vice Minister of Industries and Information Technology. The academy is expected to promote space science within Sri Lanka. A Satellite Ground Station would also be part of this Academy, which would train scientists to handle communication satellite operations. It appears that Sri Lanka has a great space vision for the future and even proposes to undertake training astronauts in its academy.
With the launch of the communication satellite, SupremeSAT would become the 27th private company in the world to own a satellite. Interestingly, the company has already started negotiating with the Maldives and Afghanistan to build satellites for them.
Sri Lanka has been toying with an idea of launching a satellite for the last few years. In 2009, the Sri Lanka Space Agency (SLASA) had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), a British company. As per this MoU, SSTL would launch an Earth Observation satellite for Sri Lanka and is also expected to help in designing Sri Lanka’s communications satellite. However, not much is known about this project presently, and may be the agreement no longer holds good. Is the British company’s loss China’s state-owned CGWIC’s gain?
China’s engagement with Sri Lanka in the area of space technology is along expected lines. It is obvious that the deal is actually a result of their strong bilateral relationship. At the same time it is also important to note that space technologies have acquired a special status in China’s geopolitical stratagem. China is not only using this expertise to cement existing bilateral associations but also as a tool for fresh engagements. China has been found using its expertise in space technologies as a tool of diplomacy both for economic and strategic gains. It is also keen to expand its market share while at the same not making commerce the sole purpose of its external investments. China is choosing its partners in the space arena very carefully, fully mindful of the geostrategic advantages such investments offer. It is helping states in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia to develop their space programmes. The oil and mineral resources factor is also obvious in such investments. Moreover, some states are being engaged with the hidden motive of winning over the supporters of Taiwan to the Chinese side.
China’s engagement with Sri Lankan signifies the inroads it is making into the South Asian region via space diplomacy. The region is home to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—a group of mainly poor but strategically important states from China’s point of view. It is an irony that the only ‘developed state’ in this grouping, India, which is also a credible space power, has allowed China to use space diplomacy in the region effectively. Sri Lanka is not the first country in the region that China is assisting in the space arena. In August 2011, China had launched a communications satellite for Pakistan as well. Now, using the Sri Lankan example, China is reaching out to Afghanistan and Maldives too.
Why are various countries looking towards China for assistance in building and launching satellites? In general, China has been using its global position, economic strength and technological attainments astutely including in the space arena to attract developing states. In certain cases China has been found funding the space programmes of some states or providing them with long term loans along with technical assistance. Communication satellites appear to be the key requirement of developing states and China is able to help them in this regard.
India still does not possess the expertise to launch satellites in the category of three tons or more and hence is unable to help developing countries launch communication satellites. However, there are very many other areas where India could offer assistance to its South Asian neighbours as well as other countries, such as developing the ground infrastructure, training, designing and launching small satellites and remote sensing satellites, etc. Bangladesh has also signed an agreement with a US-based company to launch its first satellite and this satellite is expected to be launched by 2015.
Till date India has launched 29 satellites for other countries either under commercial terms or otherwise. What is required is for India to become more proactive in this field and exploit its space proficiency to gain diplomatic advantage. Probably, hitherto, India had never thought of using space as an instrument of ‘influence’, but this needs to change. However, this is not likely to happen swiftly. India faces one major technological limitation and also probably lacks policy initiatives. There is a requirement to change the current mindset. The technological challenge is that India is yet to master the art of developing cryogenic engines which, in turn, would allow it to launch heavy satellites into geostationary orbits. For launch of satellites in other categories, even though India has a reliable launcher in the form of the PSLV, it still lacks the required infrastructure to undertake quick launches. While China can manage more than 20 rocket launches in one year, India manages hardly one or two launches per year; this needs to change. Growth in the private sector is a must for any budding space programme and this is one critical area where India needs to cover much ground.
India has much to learn from China with regard to using space as an ‘instrument of influence’ and also needs to expand the global footprint of its expertise. It is important to appreciate that the business model of space should involve policy initiatives that extend benefits beyond the commercial arena. Space technology is akin to nuclear technology and allows state to use it for the purpose of diplomatic advantage. Technology in general and space technology in particular could be viewed as one of the important drivers for maintaining the global strategic balance. It is therefore important that India begins to use its space proficiency shrewdly to raise its international stature instead of getting trapped into academic arguments such as a space race with China!