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Satellite for SAARC: Pakistan’s Missed Opportunity

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 19, 2016

    Recently, Pakistan’s high commissioner in Delhi Abdul Basit announced that the peace process between India and Pakistan stands suspended. Over the years the India-Pakistan bilateral talk process has been more like a sinusoidal curve with crests and troughs, but not reaching to any definitive conclusions. Almost for the last three decades, the Pakistani military leadership/Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has directly or indirectly ensured that civilian governments would not be able to transform peace talks into a sustainable process. Surprisingly, in its dealings with India, Pakistan has been so myopic that it has not found any genuine gesture for constructive engagement useful. The latest instance in this regard is Pakistan’s decision to pull out of India’s proposal for joint satellite development for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations.

    In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced India’s decision to develop (and gift) a satellite to benefit all SAARC member countries in different fields like weather data exchanges, disaster management, telecommunication and tele-medicine. The work on this satellite has already begun at the Indian Space research Organisation (ISRO), and the satellite is expected to be launched by the end of 2016. After remaining indecisive about this project for long, Pakistan has finally decided to opt out of the SAARC satellite project. Now, India would launch this satellite not as a satellite for SAARC, but as a South Asia satellite.

    Pakistan’s decision may not be totally surprising given the current chill in the India-Pakistan relationship. The initial discussions on this project were progressing in a constructive fashion with Pakistan. However, Pakistan subsequently made a technical and financial help offer to India for the construction of the satellite. This was not accepted by India, which could be one of the main reasons for Pakistan opting out of this project. Obviously, Pakistan has missed an opportunity to develop ‘orbital cooperation’ with India in spite of having ‘terrestrial confrontation’.

    On the other hand, it appears that China is keen to join hands with India for a proposed ‘BRICS Constellation of satellites’. BRICS is a group of states that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Amongst these five, Russia, India, and China are space-faring states with very successful space programmes. The proposal is to develop a remote sensing satellite constellation for BRICS countries. More than a year ago, China and Russia had also proposed to establish a global international navigation system based on China’s Bei-Dou (Compass) and Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation constellations. The aim is to make this constellation available to the BRICS grouping as well as the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Already, under a bilateral arrangement, India is a user of the Russian GLONASS system. India is also expected to join the SCO shortly. It may also be noted that Modi has already expressed a desire to offer the services of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) to neighbouring states. Regrettably, however, Pakistan is missing an opportunity to engage India in the space arena when many other states including China are keen to do so.

    The complex nature of ties between India and Pakistan is known. What Pakistan needs to understand is that its relationship with India is central to stability in the region and hence it needs to work around the differences to ensure regional stability. Pakistan is stuck in the maze of extreme positions, like only accepting a composite dialogue route and refusing to talk on terror unless the Kashmir issue is resolved as per UN resolutions. All such demands essentially push the dialogue process to a dead-end. Pakistan needs to realize that 21st century diplomacy is not either-or diplomacy, sometimes it could have paradoxical contexts too. There is a need to work in the new environment by identifying areas for cooperation which were previously unheard of or unthinkable. Modi’s offer on the SARRC satellite was one such attempt.

    Today, the US and Russia are showcasing ‘space maturity’ by setting aside differences and cooperating in the outer space arena. Despite having an uneasy past (and present) of diplomatic relations, Russia and the US have a history of cooperation in the outer space arena. They are found utilising opportunities offered by the technological revolution in space to the best of their advantage. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth to become the first man in space and Russia celebrates the day as Cosmonauts Day. On April 12, 2016, on the 55th anniversary of Gagarin's flight, Putin spoke by video link with astronauts from the US and Russia aboard the International Space Station (ISS). He highlighted the willingness of both the states to cooperate closely in space, despite various differences on Earth.

    Post the Cold War, with the harmonization of relations, the US and Russia have begun an era of collaboration is outer space. In December 1993, along with other states, the US welcomed Russia to join the most ambitious project in space in recent times, namely, the International Space Station. Since then, both these states have contributed a lot towards establishing this station, with continuous human presence for more than a decade. Since 2010, the US has been totally dependent on Russia for transporting its astronauts to this station, after having wound up the Space Shuttle programme. For the last six years, the Russian Soyuz craft is taking and getting back US astronauts to and from the space station.

    The Syria catastrophe and the Ukraine/Crimea crisis have caused a significant deterioration in Russia-US relations. Yet, both states have not allowed this bitterness to spread to their cooperative relationship in outer space. While the Space Station can be considered a scientific experiment, the two states have not shied away from cooperating in the strategic realm too. The Atlas-V rocket used by US agencies to launch military satellites has significant dependence on Russian RD-180 rocket engines. The US is not in a position to manufacture these engines indigenously, at least until 2019. Today, Russia is supplying these engines to the US.

    Pakistan needs to learn from the US, Russian and Chinese examples. Space Security is an issue for all major states, but at the same time states are not shying away from collaborating in this arena. The SAARC satellite was an opportunity for Pakistan to display its enthusiasm for space cooperation with India, but probably its strategic calculations ‘jammed’ its vision. For its part, India needs to appreciate the fact that in the 21st century actions like ‘gifting’ of a satellite to SAARC and making an ‘advertisement’ about it does not go well with the smaller states, given that it may be seen as a symptom of the Raj syndrome!

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