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China’s ‘String of pearls’ in Space

Gp. Capt. Ajey Lele (Retd.) is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 21, 2013

    A ‘pearl’ could be viewed as a sphere of influence seeded, secured and maintained through the use of economic, geopolitical, diplomatic or military means. The ‘string of pearls’ is about China’s unambiguous maritime strategy that investments in increasing its sea power. This is essentially a multi-pronged strategy that challenges dominant US interests in the Indian Ocean and sends a clear message to India that the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean by increasing the dependence of the littoral states in the region on China. Over the years China has been helping countries in the region to develop strategic maritime centres. It has assisted various states in creating new maritime facilities or improvising on their existing maritime assets. China is playing a critical role in developing various shipping facilities, constructing deep water ports and naval bases, developing pipeline projects and putting in place mechanisms for intelligence gathering. By doing this, it has succeeded in engaging the various countries of the region in India’s neighbourhood.

    China’s interests are not only restricted to establishing itself as an effective maritime power. It also has significant interests in other emerging domains of power projection like cyber and space. Particularity in the space arena China has been making significant investments and has made extremely rapid progress. At the global level much of the debate focuses on China’s space programme and its strategic implications. However, it is also important to look at China’s engagement with states in various regions by using space as a tool of influence. It appears that China is putting the ‘string of pearls’ theory into practice in the outer space arena too.

    For long China has been assisting countries in Africa and Latin America in the space arena. It has notable projects with Brazil, Nigeria and Venezuela. Chinese investments have a significant political motive. Many states have officially recognized Taiwan as a sovereign state with political and legal status. It appears that China has used satellite technology as one of the means to influence these states to change their policy on this front. Overall, Chinese assistance to these countries in the space arena could be viewed as an instrument of its soft power projection policy. However, China’s space engagement with states in Asia, particularly those in the vicinity of India, is different.

    In Asia, China is providing assistance in space to various states like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mongolia, Laos and Thailand. Particularly, in the last few years, China is found engaging India’s neighbours intelligently. In August 2011, China launched a communications satellite for Pakistan. Pakistan’s next remote sensing satellite is slated to be launched by 2014 and China’s likely involvement in this mission is expected. In December 2012 China declared its global navigation system Beidou operational for the Asia-Pacific region. Pakistan’s space agency has a cooperation agreement with China for the use of this system. Although this agreement is for civilian use, the dual-use potential of such systems is well-known.

    China’s space investments in Sri Lanka are different in that it is not engaging the government directly. A private Sri Lankan company Supreme Sat has entered into a partnership agreement with China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC). CGWIC is China's State-owned company and is assisting Supreme Sat with regard to design, manufacture and launch of satellites. President Rajapakse’s youngest son Rohita Rajapaksa is a technical advisor/engineer to this project. The first satellite was launched by China on November 27, 2012 and the second satellite is expected to be launched in April 2013 and the third by 2015. China is also assisting with the promotion of space science by developing a Space Academy, the Pallekelle Space Centre. A Satellite Ground Station would also be part of this Academy. Apart from training scientists to handle communication satellite operations, this academy is expected to train astronauts and the Sri Lankan government hopes that within the next seven years it would have a Sri Lankan astronaut. In turn, Supreme Sat is engaging states like Afghanistan and Maldives in the space arena, although specific details are not yet available in this regard. It is obvious that this company on its own is not in a position to help others and would eventually depend on China, thus giving China an indirect ‘space entry’ into these states.

    Chinese companies in the field of information technology and telecommunications are already involved in Maldives. As per some reports, about US $60 million in loans have been given by China to Maldives to implement its information technology (IT) infrastructure project for the development of the telecommunications network. Negotiations are also under way to provide the Maldives a Chinese satellite for use. China is also assisting Nepal in the field of communications. While a war-wounded Afghanistan is unlikely to embark upon a space programme at this stage, what is important to note is the significant growth of private television stations and private radio in that country. Naturally, the country’s satellite dependence is bound to increase and China could probably exploit this opportunity. For the last few years China has also been assisting Myanmar with its specialized university for aerospace engineering.

    China is also spearheading a group called Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO). Through this coordination mechanism, it is engaging some of India’s neighbours at a multilateral level to promote the peaceful uses of outer space. The only space-faring state in this group is China and its other members include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Thailand, etc. Asia’s other space giants, Japan and India, are not members of this organization.

    All this clearly indicates that China is using the route of space technology diplomacy as a tool for bilateral and multilateral engagement. It has also been found to be engaging private customers to make its model economically viable. China recognizes the likelihood of increasing demand in the space arena from the region and has made quick moves to grab the market. It has been found making focussed efforts to engage specific states in the ‘space net’ and by doing so is increasing the number of ‘made in China eyes’ in space. Chinese investments in developing ground infrastructure and training facilities as well as the willingness to provide loans indicate that its interests are long-term. It is important to note that many satellites have a lifespan of around 15 years and this demands long-term engagement and China will remain connected for many more years with these states. It is therefore important for India to appreciate the geopolitical significance behind such Chinese engagements in space. China is obviously getting into these engagements with ‘Chinese strings attached’.

    References

    1. Shee Poon Kim, “An Anatomy of China’s ‘String of Pearls’ Strategy”, http://www.biwako.shiga-u.ac.jp/eml/Ronso/387/Kim.pdf, accessed on February 20, 2013.
    2. http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1564533, accessed on March 20, 2013.
    3. http://indian.ruvr.ru/2013_01_23/India-and-China-share-the-Maldives-INFO..., accessed on March 20, 2013.
    4. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/HJ28Ae01.html, accessed on March 20, 2013.
    5. http://www.defence.pk/forums/economy-development/223124-pakistan-beidou...., accessed on March 19, 2013.
    6. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-01-27/india/36576703_1_..., accessed on March 19, 2013.
    7. The Economic Times, March 19, 2013.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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