Beijing, We Have a Problem

Is India surpassing China in Asia's space race?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Call it a mark of maturity. Without much fanfare, China launched an unmanned, unnamed spacecraft on Oct. 24, possibly paving the way for a more sophisticated moon vehicle in 2017. But this milestone comes less than a month after India’s celebrated Mars mission reached its destination. In the court of public opinion at least, Beijing looks unlikely to top it.

Delhi’s first interplanetary probe Mangalyaan ("Mars craft" in Hindi) became a worldwide media darling, a classic underdog story. The odds were not in its favor: two-thirds of all Mars missions had failed, including China’s most recent attempt in November 2011. After six loops around earth, an innovative and inexpensive slingshot effect flung the satellite into orbit nearly a year ago, vaulting India into the global elite space club. While India’s main space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, insisted the launch had nothing to do with Beijing’s extra-orbital attempts, merely getting off the ground was a victory: one small step for India’s shoestring space program, one giant leap for its self-esteem.

The scientific urgency of Mangalyaan is questionable: surveying the Red Planet’s atmosphere and surface (which the NASA spacecraft Mariner-4 photographed back in 1965) for just six months will likely add little to the world’s understanding of outer space. "It is as if the thirty-first scientist to voyage to the Galápagos Islands had stayed only a couple of days, sketched one or two of Darwin’s finches, and then left," wrote Indian journalist Samanth Subramanian in the New Yorker.

And yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi (fittingly, in a red vest), basked in the glory: India, he said on the day Mangalyaan reached Mars, is a future "world guru" who had "achieved the near impossible" and become "a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation." When NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012, congratulated Mangalyaan on Twitter, it replied confidently: "Howdy @MarsCuriosity? Keep in touch. I’ll be around." The cheapest Mars mission ever, at $75 million — three-quarters the cost of Hollywood space blockbuster Gravity, and less than the first U.S. stealth-jet attack on Syria — Mangalyaan has boosted Modi’s "made-in-India" vision. And it’s an ideal time, as the new prime minister has come to power amid grand promises of an Indian renaissance.

India’s foray may be remedial and its scientific value sketchy, but it puts the country alongside the three superpowers — United States, the European Union, and Russia — that have reached Mars. The subcontinent’s press, convinced that India went to Mars to show China it was still a worthy rival, rejoiced in unabashed nationalism. They may have unwittingly launched a space race. But it’s relatively friendly for now.

Beijing wasn’t "jealous," nationalist newspaper Global Times sulked in late September: "no country can claim to be a leader in every arena." (Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, was more diplomatic, calling Mangalyaan a "pride of Asia" and refusing to rule out future cooperation.) China does not disclose its spending on space — "a black hole," experts joke — but it likely far exceeds Delhi’s.

Space exploration, of course, is not the only geostrategic sphere in which India and China jostle. Their rivalry for influence, markets, and energy resources, plays out in Africa, Latin America, and the Indian Ocean, and their shared border along the Himalayas has been the site of recurring standoffs since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Nowadays, China wins in most departments: its economy is bigger, its growth faster, its poverty levels lower, literacy rate higher, and military more powerful than India’s.

For India, haunted by inferiority complexes vis-a-vis its giant neighbor, space offers a chance at redemption: next up, a manned mission and a pan-South Asian satellite.

The space club, like the nuclear club, equals great power status: a PR-coup to wash off the "developing country" brand, with spin-off benefits for both the national economy and defense. The aerospace sector embodies national aspiration. Who could aim higher than the stars? "India and China have large populations that they are struggling to bring out of decades of poverty and underdevelopment," said James Clay Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of the 2011 book Asia’s Space Race. "Space represents a symbol of modernity and advancement."

If this is the Asian Century, its space age may well be Asian, too. Cash-strapped and overstretched, America’s pre-eminence in space is no longer a given. No human has been to the moon since 1972: the next time this happens, it seems increasingly likely to be an Indian or Chinese astronaut. Asia’s obsession with space is a logical extension of rapid economic growth, increasing power, and an appreciation for science, says Bharath Gopalaswamy, space analyst at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. "It’s communicating ‘you can do this too,’" to its own population, he adds. It encourages "people to embark on scientific projects that might seem impossible." And, says Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Dean Cheng, space has great spinoff benefits for militaries, especially with regards to information systems and surveillance.

It isn’t just India trying to keep up. Other new kids on the block with recent launches of satellites and rockets include Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan, among others. Russia talks about another lunar mission. South and North Korea both dispatched satellites in 2013, the former setting a 2020 deadline for a lunar rover. And Iran propelled a monkey into orbit in preparation for a human spacecraft by 2020.

Outer space is currently collaborative: the International Space Station, the largest artificial satellite in orbit, has been manned since 2000 by a joint 14-nation effort, though most of the funding comes from the United States. But when the money dries up in 2020 — the same year India and China have hinted they would like to launch manned spacecrafts — this short era of international space cooperation may come to an end.

Asian ventures — unlike the 20-nation European Space Agency, the continent’s collaborative space program — are largely self-reliant and government-run. For now, they are intrinsically tied to nationhood and identity. For India and China, autarky was both a necessity and  a choice, with the former suffering technology apartheid since its 1974 nuclear test and the latter banned by U.S. legislation from cooperating with NASA. Either way, their ability to reach space independently only amplifies bragging rights. (When they met in September, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a memorandum of understanding on the "peaceful use of space," though it’s difficult to see that handshake deal leading to actual cooperation between their countries.)  

China’s own space station is set to become operational as the International Space Station reaches retirement in 2020. The Chinese outpost could then become, as the Global Times triumphantly noted, "mankind’s only foothold in space." Notoriously fond of mega-projects, Beijing’s gravitation towards the final frontier seems logical: inheriting space hegemony as ultimate proof of its arrival as a superpower.

And superpowers can get carried away by national pride. In a 2012 book, Indian space analyst Ajey Lele called Asia’s space competition "the most exceptional and widespread security dilemma in the world," with risky constellations including India-Pakistan, China-India, and Sino-Japan, and the Koreas. The United Nations condemned North Korea’s space launch as a disguised ballistic missile test (attempts to condemn Iran’s on similar grounds were blocked by China and Russia); similarly, China’s decision to shoot down one of its own dead satellite in 2010 caused alarm in Washington and in neighboring capitals, over fears that space junk could litter near-earth orbit and concerns that the technology could be could lead to a regional arms race.

While space has always signaled not-so-subtle nuclear readiness (after all, what are rockets if not long-range missiles?) the real concern today, Cheng argues, is technology that can disrupt other countries’ space assets. Such technologies, so far only demonstrated by China, seem straight out a 1970’s James Bond film: satellites with robotic arms that could take out other probes, techniques to bump other satellites off course, shoot them down, or blind them with lasers. But other countries are not far behind. China’s decision to invest in offensive space technology, says Moltz, means India is now increasingly focusing on the military space realm as well.

Unsurprisingly, India and China downplay the military aspect. The Asian space age, Modi implies, is not like the ones that came before it, anyway. "In contrast with the linear nature of Western philosophy; there is no absolute ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ in our Eastern understanding of the cosmos," the prime minister said after Mangalyaan reached the Red Planet — only "a continuous, unending cycle of dispassionate, detached perseverance."

But watching this extraterrestrial competition from Europe or the United States, however, it’s hard to be dispassionate about its potential implications.

Kim Wall is a Swedish journalist based in New York and Beijing.