Written by Sofia Caal.
The numerous ongoing space-related military projects in Asia have led observers to claim the existence of an Asian Space Race. And while the current political conditions in Asia are considerably different from the Cold War circumstances from which the term originated, there is no doubt that a competition is arising in Asia in terms of space capabilities. Thus, the question is not whether a space race is taking place in the region, but rather, what form it is taking, particularly in terms of military assets.
Military space capabilities are increasing in Asia: across several countries in the region. The trend is particularly observable in Asia’s four biggest space faring powers: China, India, Japan, and South Korea, although the increase of military space capabilities has different manifestations in each case.
Until recently, India’s space program was solely concentrated on civil purposes. However, it has since begun to shift its position towards the increasing development of its own military space capabilities. In particular, this phenomenon is observable in the development of dual-use technology (a salient example of this is the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) Program, which could potentially be used to launch ballistic missiles).
China has demonstrated the most impressive development of space capabilities in the region, in both the military and civil fields. Since 2003, with the successful launch of its first manned space flight – Shenzhou V – the Chinese space program has gained increasing attention. However, such growth has also raised alarms in the region, particularly when China conducted a test of its anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) capabilities in 2007. More recently, China has gained attention for unveiling plans for landing a rover on Mars, which it intends to launch by 2020.
China’s ambiguous—and secretive—behaviour when it comes to its military space capabilities has led to a debate regarding its ambitions in space. Though many have argued that China is heading towards a space race with the United States, it appears that China is further motivated by a desire to obtain a higher and long-term status as a space-faring nation, certainly in comparison to the United States, but also globally.
Until recently, India’s space program was solely concentrated on civil purposes. However, it has since begun to shift its position towards the increasing development of its own military space capabilities. In particular, this phenomenon is observable in the development of dual-use technology (a salient example of this is the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) Program, which could potentially be used to launch ballistic missiles). India’s shift towards the militarisation of its space program is also observable in a recent, and subtle, shift in the official position regarding its space program. In part, this change seems to have been triggered by the realisation, in 2007, that China was rapidly increasing its military space capabilities. Nevertheless, while India’s shift remains in the early stages. So far, India continues to stress a policy of non-weaponisation of space, but whether it will maintain such a position in the future remains to be seen.
Japan’s space program has the most extensive history in the region. However, in terms of military capabilities, Japan is a particular case. Due to the limitations by Article 9 of its Constitution (which prohibits Japan from forming a military), in addition to its image as a peaceful state, Japan has historically been reluctant to approach the issue of military space capabilities. However, partially because of North Korea’s ballistic missile testing in 1998, as well as changes in perception within the Japanese government with regards to the potential use of satellite technology, in 2008 the Japanese Diet passed the Basic Space Law which allowed the use of outer space for defensive purposes.
The law has raised concerns about the possible return of a militarised Japan, or the possibility of a direct space race with China. Nevertheless, Japan has continued to emphasise the defensive purposes of the law. Furthermore, in terms of possible competition with China, this is more likely to be taking place in civil and commercial areas rather than military ones, particularly in terms of China’s expansion of influence in the region through the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation (APSCO), which was itself established in response to the Japanese-led Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF).
South Korea’s space program is the youngest—and smallest—of the four and has leaned towards the commercial uses of its own space capabilities. Indeed, South Korea has generally resorted to downplaying its own military space capabilities (which mostly take the form of reconnaissance capabilities through its satellites) while emphasising the commercial potential of the space program. This is partly because South Korea is not in a position in which it can afford to compete directly with its neighbours in terms of military capabilities. This is not only because South Korea’s space program lags behind China and Japan’s, but also because the precarious political situation with North Korea and its alliance with the United States prevent it from doing anything that may inadvertently be interpreted as a military provocation.
In spite of these circumstances, it might be worth questioning whether the most recent North Korean nuclear test on the 3rd of September will change the current position of South Korea (and Japan) in regards to the military potential of their space programs.
In conclusion, the rapid and continuous increase of military space capabilities in Asia is a factor of the so-called Asian Space Race. Yet this space race is not taking the form witnessed during the Cold War. Instead, what we might be seeing is competition, where both status-seeking and national security concerns are influential, but wherein each actor appears to have different goals which are not (yet) in direct confrontation with each other’s. Indeed, it may be that, unlike the space race that took place during the Cold War, the space race in Asia is not so much defined by a military contention, but rather, by the more recent developments in commercial space technology, and the rising profile of space exploration.