Written by Ajey Lele.

Today’s world is interconnected and faces various challenges both at a regional and a global level. These challenges are on a range of issues: from climate change to water to energy to health to terrorism. It is obvious that no one country alone can tackle such challenges. Countries are found to effectively use science and technology to address such defining challenges. Globally states share knowledge and technologies either commercially or as a part of multilateral or bilateral arrangements.

Space is one sector where collaboration should not be limited by one-off satellite launches. If the region has to benefit, then there is a need for a larger agenda.

Constructive engagement in the field of science is important for the growth of states. In this regard, science diplomacy could play a major role. The concept of science diplomacy is not new. Science diplomacy can be viewed as the summation of individual diplomacies, undertaken for various important sectors of science. Space is one such sector which is multi-disciplinary in nature and involves scientific, commercial and strategic aspects. Modern-day lifestyle is totally dependent on space technologies and hence space diplomacy is becoming more relevant.

Narendra Modi was sworn in as the Prime Minister of India on May 26, 2014 . He invited leaders of the SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) countries to his swearing-in ceremony. This move was considered as an attempt to promote constructive regional engagement. SAARC is a regional multilateral grouping and was established on 8th December 1985. SAARC comprises eight member states namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Over the years, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has earned a reputation for itself by successfully undertaking various space missions including missions to the Moon and Mars. India is the only state in South Asia which has a fully established space programme and is a space-faring state. Being a user of space technology for socioeconomic development for many decades, India decided to share this expertise with the neighbouring states and thus came up with the idea of developing and launching a satellite exclusively for the region.  Mr Modi put forth the idea of a SAARC satellite for the region on June 30, 2014 while addressing India’s space scientists. Subsequently, he reiterated this idea at the 18th SAARC summit (26–27 November 2014) in Kathmandu, Nepal. He assured SAARC members that ISRO would launch this satellite within two years and this satellite would be a ‘gift’ from India.

Initially, the idea of SAARC satellite was welcomed by all member-states. However, subsequently India had to undergo a somewhat difficult process of negotiation. Finally, Pakistan decided not to join this project. This led to a change in the nomenclature of the satellite from the SAARC satellite to the South Asia satellite. On May 05, 2017, ISRO successfully launched the South Asia satellite (also known as GSAT-9). This is a Geostationary Communication Satellite and was launched by using Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). This satellite is designed for a lifespan of 12 years and is meant to provide various communication applications in Ku-band, with coverage over most South Asian countries. There are 12 high-power Ku-band transponders on-board this satellite, that provides the user community with DTH (Direct To Home) television services.

GSAT-9 will assist South Asian states in mapping natural resources, establishing IT connectivity and the field of tele-education and tele-medicine. The satellite was built by ISRO in approximately three years and has a weight of 2,230 kg. The satellite was built at a cost of Rs. 235 crore (US$ 35m) and the total cost of the project was Rs. 450 crore (US$ 67m).

India had put forward the idea of SAARC satellite with the aim of promoting the common good and common progress. However, it was obvious that the states in the region would assess the benefits for themselves before joining the project. For India, the negotiations with states like Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka were not that difficult and they immediately joined the project. With Afghanistan and Bangladesh, the challenges were more technical in nature. Afghanistan had already purchased a satellite which has similar functions and which was already operational in  space. This satellite was owned by an agency from the European Union (EU) and was repositioned over the South Asian region and sold to Afghanistan (presently known as Afghansat-1). Bangladesh is expected to have its own communication satellite around December 2017.  It thus felt that the South Asia satellite would not offer any additional benefits. Although, Bangabandhu-1 and GSAT-9 would be in different orbital slots, they would have the same service area. Hence, these two states delayed before deciding to become part of the regional satellite experiment.

Because of the tensions in the India-Pakistan relationship it was expected that Pakistan would find a reason not to participate. Initially, they showed enthusiasm but they wanted to ensure that India would not get the whole credit for this project. They wanted to involve their scientists and also expressed a desire to assist technically and financially. For Pakistan, achieving parity with India is important and although they have been successful in developing nuclear and missile capabilities, in the arena of space they lag behind India. Owing to their technological limitations in this sector, they would only remain a beneficiary and not be able to be a partner in the project. In addition, it is important to note that in South Asia, China is playing an important role in the field of space. It has launched communication satellites for both Sri Lanka and Pakistan and is also helping Maldives with their Space Programme. Pakistan also has access to China’s navigational system.

For India, this project was, from conceptualization to execution, a learning experience in a new form of diplomacy. India’s assistance to the neighbourhood could definitely help increase goodwill with those countries. In addition, this act highlights India’s adherence to its own “neighbours first” foreign policy agenda. The launch has attracted global attention. India could have effectively used this opportunity to engage Myanmar in this project too. The geostrategic significance of Myanmar for India is well understood. Also, adding Myanmar to the project would have helped upgrade Myanmar’s status from an observer to full member within the SAARC in near future.

Space is one sector where collaboration should not be limited by one-off satellite launches. If the region has to benefit, then there is a need for a larger agenda. India could push for the establishment of a SAARC Framework Agreement on Space Cooperation. Similar agreements in arenas like energy already exist. India is also proposing to provide access to its regional navigational system. However, official engagements with its neighbours is yet to begin. Diplomacy comes with a cost. The cost of the South Asia satellite is the same as the cost of India’s famous mission to Mars. Presently, it could be said that South Asia satellite is a good beginning and has generated a good amount of traction amongst India’s neighbours. However, in the future, such engagements should not be ‘gifts’.

Diplomacy is all about projections and the launch of the South Asia satellite should not be viewed in isolation but, as a part of India’s overall neighbourhood policy.

Group Captain (Retd.) Ajey Lele is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. His areas of research include issues related to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), space security and strategic technologies. Image credit: Hazel Moore/ Flickr

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