- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
The Indian Space Research Organisation’s heaviest rocket left Earth on Friday, charged with sending into orbit a communications satellite. The satellite, GSAT-9, is entirely paid for by India, but will provide linked communications to seven of the member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
That is, every SAARC member state but one. Pakistan did not sign on.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lauded the moment as one in which regional cooperation went from imperative to reality. Tshering Tobgay, prime minister of Bhutan, said that one country launching a satellite for its neighbors to use for free marks a historic moment for the world. Maithripala Sirisena, prime minister of Sri Lanka, said it signified Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to building ties with the rest of the countries of South Asia.
But “Pakistan didn’t sign on because the relationship between the two countries is rather low at the moment,” said the Atlantic Council’s Bharath Gopalaswamy. Indeed, tensions have recently risen anew over violence in Kashmir — two Indian soldiers were killed while patrolling the border, and India has accused members of Pakistan’s military.
There’s also the prickly fact that Pakistan does not want to acknowledge that India is the regional hegemon, and that New Delhi would not let Islamabad join in the satellite’s development, since that would have meant sharing Indian technology, said Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment.
The satellite will help those countries that did sign on improve their telecommunications and broadcasting services, and it will also allow nations to more ably forecast the weather and communicate with one another during times of disaster.
The satellite is “a golden opportunity to contribute something to the public good in that region,” which very few do, Gopalaswamy said. That isn’t to say that Modi offered up the satellite out of the goodness of his own heart — he has said that India’s future is in its own neighborhood.
Tellis called the move a “manifestation of [Modi’s] noblesse oblige–his conviction that India, as the dominant power in South Asia, must make extraordinary contributions to the economic uplift of the subcontinent.”
Of course, there’s a geopolitical backdrop there, too: Beijing, as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative, is seeking to boost its economic and diplomatic influence in South Asia. The satellite gives India a way to notch a geopolitical victory of its own, without the expensive and messy business of underwriting huge development deals across the continent. (There’s also the added benefit of showing Beijing that New Delhi can flex its space muscles, too — although, as New America’s Peter Singer noted, China’s space program is well ahead of India’s, and has been used by Pakistan.)
But that doesn’t mean that India’s going to beg Pakistan to change its mind, Tellis said.
“I don’t think India will make any effort to convince Pakistan to sign on because if Islamabad cannot see the virtue of participating in the program, it has nothing to lose but free benefits for itself.”
On Friday, Modi said that the satellite demonstrates that the sky is not the limit for South Asian cooperation.
And it isn’t. But that’s because the limit is here on Earth.
Update, May 5 2017, 3:51 pm ET: This piece has been updated to include comment from New America’s Peter Singer.
Photo credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images