South Asia Satellite: Space diplomacy or domination?

South Asia Satellite: Space diplomacy or domination?

Azzam Khan,

In a rather bizarre turn of events, on 5 May this year India launched a satellite into space. This is not the first satellite it has launched and will certainly not be the last, but the bizarre part of it all is that it has been dubbed as the South Asian satellite. More specifically, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has termed it as an ‘invaluable gift’ to the neighbours in the region.

The satellite has been made in India, launched by India and is controlled by India, yet it bears the South Asian seal. Is that a symbol of India’s space diplomacy? Domination, more likely, cynics comment.

The cynics have a point there. After all, this is not a new concept. Satellites of other countries have been used by various regions of the world, for a price, on commercial basis. India, however, is providing service from this satellite free of cost. Or if there is a price, it is hidden and may be much steeper than visible to the apparent eye. The recipients of the service may have to pay a higher price, not in cash, but in kind.

How receptive have the recipients of the gift been? Bangladesh seems to have adopted that age-old adage, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in mouth.’ In other words, don’t question the value of a gift, just accept it with grace and gratitude. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has done just that. She hails this ‘space diplomacy’ of India, saying that the launch of the satellite lifted cooperation between Bangladesh and India above the land, the sea and the skies, right up into outer space.

Then there’s another adage which a different neighbour of the ‘hood seems to have adopted – ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ Pakistan hasn’t been quite so eager to accept the gift satellite unequivocally. In fact, it has rejected it outright. That is why instead of being called the ‘SAARC satellite’, in keeping with the original plans, it is now the South Asian satellite.

It was during the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit held in 2014 in Kathmandu that the concept of the SAARC satellite was discussed. It seemed to be a perfect manifestation of the SAARC spirit, of what SAARC was supposed to stand for. The problem was that India was not doing it in the spirit of SAARC cooperation, but was taking it as a solely Indian project, where India would be the benefactor and the other member states of the South Asian regional body would be beneficiaries. So even if Pakistan may have been initially interested, it eventually rejected the ‘gift’ as it was not under the SAARC umbrella.

In terms of hard cash, India has spent Rs 4.5 billion, that is around US$ 70 million, on this satellite. Why would India want to spend so much money on the other countries of the neighbourhood, on neighbours with whom it hasn’t always been on the best of terms? Out of sheer benevolence?  Or has the Big Brother syndrome come into play here?

With Pakistan out of the picture, the satellite now covers Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan may well come under its purview too. According to Indian Prime Minister Modi, along with India, these countries will “achieve effective communication; better governance, better banking and better education in remote areas; more predictable weather forecasting, land monitoring and efficient resource mapping; linking people with top end medical services though tele-medicine; and a quick response to natural disaster.”

Ironically, with the controls lying in Indian hands, it is India that will use the satellite to gather all sorts of information from these countries and provide the data as an ‘invaluable gift’ to them. For example, India will know well before Bangladesh the location and other details of its natural resources. It will be able to collect and collate all sorts of information before the concerned countries. Nothing will be hidden, there will be no secrets from India. It will be a virtual CCTV in space, but the monitors only in India for Indian eyes. They will beam down whatever data they feel the others need to know. Big Brother knows best!

Also ironically, the Bangladesh government has been on the verge of announcing with much pride and fanfare its very own satellite. The Bangabandhu satellite being made by Bangladesh costs around five times more than India’s ‘South Asian’ one. Costing Tk 30 billion or US$ 375 million, this satellite will provide all the services promised by the Indian satellite and more. So, what was the need to hurriedly accept this gift from Modi when we have our own? Is it not a compromise of our security? Why should we so easily let the powerful neighbour poke its nose, and eyes, into our territory? Would India so readily strip itself and reveal all to its neighbours in return?

SAARC, which could have been an ideal regional alliance, has time and again been dislocated due to the enmity between India and Pakistan. And this satellite has pushed the wedge more firmly in place. It has certainly caused a regrouping, albeit unofficial, of the regional countries. Was this a ploy for India not only to flex its muscles further, but also to distance Pakistan a little more?

And it is not only Pakistan that is the target. India’s nemesis, China, is a factor too. China’s influence has been steadily increasing in the region. Now a global power to contend with, China quite overshadows India. Despite the latter’s Big Brotherly bravado, it often is viewed as the neighborhood bully rather than a regional superpower.

Not willing to accept this second position among its South Asian ‘friends’, Modi sees this satellite as a powerful tool to exert India’s influence and consolidate its control. Its impact is far reaching and significant in this regard. In fact, many observers of regional politics feel that the main objective of this satellite is to curb China’s influence in the region. In an almost sci-fi futuristic manner, China and India have taken their rivalry to another level, to the domain of outer space.

Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of India’s Observer Research Foundation, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan himself has said to the media, “Space is no more just a science and technology domain — it is being seen from a strategic and foreign policy perspective.”

In Bangladesh, Chairman of the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) Shahjahan Mahmud does not seem too thrilled with the South Asian satellite. After all, it has taken the edge off the excitement of Bangladesh launching its very own satellite. Shahjahan Mahmud said in a media interview, “The Bangabandhu satellite is to be launched by December this year, so in that sense there is very little to benefit from this gift [the South Asian satellite].” He said the Bangabandhu satellite would have 12 transponders which would be able provide much more service.

Political observers of the region are questioning the significance of Modi’s ‘invaluable gift’. It certainly is invaluable to India itself, but will the satellite prove to be more intrusive than invaluable to the South Asian countries? Is this an instance of space diplomacy? Or domination? The answer lies in India’s track record.