India’s Moon Landing Is a Big Geopolitical Step
The successful lunar mission, coming on the heels of Russian failure, could accelerate a long-running space race.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India becomes the first country to land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping could have a long-awaited meeting at this week’s BRICS summit, and Pakistan faces political uncertainty under a caretaker government.
Indian Spacecraft Lands on Moon’s South Pole
India became just the fourth country to stage a soft landing on the moon on Wednesday, when the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft successfully alighted on the lunar south pole. No other nation has made a landing on that part of the moon. The path of the Chandrayaan-3, which launched from southern India more than a month ago, has captivated the Indian public and dominated headlines for days.
The symbolism of India’s moon landing is hard to overstate: An aspiring power has achieved an unprecedented feat nearly 240,000 miles from Earth. India’s space program originated in the 1960s and has launched hundreds of satellites. In 2008, the Chandrayaan-1 mission confirmed the presence of craters on the moon’s south pole that scientists say contain ice. However, a previous attempt at a soft landing on the moon failed in 2019.
On the global stage, the landing represents a moment of arrival for India, with clear political gains for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India’s goals of becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group may stand unfulfilled, but it is now part of a much smaller group of countries that have been to the moon, alongside only China, Russia, and the United States. And many aspirants—including Israel, Japan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates—have not succeeded in landing on the moon’s south pole.
Beyond the symbolism, the achievement can bring substantive benefits to India and the wider world. New Delhi’s moon landing can enhance ongoing space research that has contributed to the development of communication and remote-sensing technologies. India’s space research has also helped monitor underground water levels and predict weather patterns back home on Earth—which is especially significant in one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.
The lunar landing could also boost India’s economy by kickstarting private space exploration programs. A senior official at India’s Ministry of Science and Technology said that India’s space sector could become a trillion-dollar economy. Indian space experts also speak of how the Chandrayaan-3 mission can accelerate efforts to fight climate change. The lunar mission involves research on helium-3, a helium isotope found in abundance on the moon that could serve as a renewable energy resource.
However, the Chandrayaan-3 mission could introduce a new phase of great power competition by accelerating a long-running space race. India and Russia—partners on Earth—have competed to become the first country to land on the lunar south pole; a Russian attempt failed on Sunday. The presence of water, which could be refined into rocket fuel in the future, suggests an opportunity for other countries to use the lunar south pole region as a base for deeper space exploration.
Perhaps in anticipation of such competition, in 2020 the United States established the Artemis Accords, which aim to promote space cooperation through shared rules and principles. Many U.S. allies and partners have signed on, including India during Modi’s visit to Washington in June. China and Russia have not. With geopolitical competition in space poised to intensify, it could certainly change the way those on Earth perceive the moon—and beyond.
What We’re Following
A Modi-Xi meeting? This week, South Africa hosts the annual BRICS summit, gathering leaders and officials from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa for the first time in person since 2019. BRICS is an important entity for New Delhi; like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it enables India to show that it can balance its relations with the West and non-Western states, a key aspect of its strategic autonomy policy.
One of the big questions about the summit was whether Modi would formally meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which hasn’t happened since a deadly border clash between India and China in 2020 plunged bilateral relations to their lowest level in years. The timing may be right: Last week, Chinese and Indian military commanders held the latest round of border talks, and a joint statement suggested they went well.
If they don’t meet in South Africa, the two leaders will have another chance next month, when New Delhi hosts this year’s G-20 summit.
More turmoil in Pakistan. This should be a quiet political moment in Pakistan: Earlier this month, the government ended its term and handed over power to a caretaker administration meant to prepare the country for elections later this year. However, the political environment remains tense amid a feud between the military and former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan was jailed this month on corruption charges, which he and his supporters are appealing.
The caretaker government has not pledged to hold elections as scheduled in November, and it is unclear when they will happen. On Saturday, Arif Alvi, a member of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party who holds Pakistan’s largely ceremonial presidency, made a stunning disclosure: He said that he had never approved two controversial laws rammed through parliament before the government left office that give more power to the military. Alvi suggested that his signatures approving the laws were forged by his staff under pressure.
PTI lawyers or others may go to the Supreme Court to argue that the laws should be declared invalid. But for now, Pakistan faces a troubling state of affairs: A caretaker government is in charge for an undetermined period of time, and the military has strengthened its formidable power.
A blow to independent media in Kashmir. Officials in New Delhi have sought to project a sense of normalcy in Indian-administered Kashmir this year, pointing to reduced violence and improving economic performance in the restive region. In May, India hosted a G-20 tourism summit there. But locals on the ground tell a very different story: one marked by constant crackdowns and the uninterrupted presence of Indian security forces.
Last weekend brought more troubling news about Kashmir’s free press. On Saturday, one of the region’s only remaining independent media outlets, the Kashmir Walla, issued a statement saying that Indian authorities had blocked its website and removed its Twitter and Facebook accounts, and that journalists were served with eviction notices from their office in Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Until now, the Kashmir Walla has continued to operate despite harassment and threats. The outlet’s editor, Fahad Shah, was jailed on terrorism charges last year.
Under the Radar
India has largely been spared from the Islamist terrorism that has convulsed Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, perpetrated mainly by the Islamic State and Taliban. But India apparently avoided a major scare last month when anti-terrorist police arrested two suspected militants in the city of Pune.
According to police, the suspects were members of an obscure group linked to the Islamic State called al-Sufa; they may have been plotting an attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai, which was targeted in the November 2008 attacks across the city that killed 166 people. Police reportedly found the two suspects with images of the facility in their possession.
Neither the Islamic State nor al Qaeda has a significant presence in India, but several prominent figures in these groups have come from the country. Asim Umar, the head of al Qaeda’s South Asia affiliate until his death in Afghanistan in 2019, was from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh; Faiz Masood, a top Islamic State recruiter, was from Bengaluru.
Most Islamist terrorist attacks in India have been perpetrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, both groups based in Pakistan. But the arrest of Islamic State-aligned militants in Pune is a reminder that India can’t be complacent about potential threats from others.
FP’s Most Read This Week
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- Zimbabwe’s ‘White Gold’ by Nosmot Gbadamosi
- India Is Becoming a Power in Southeast Asia by Derek Grossman
Former Sri Lankan civil servant Garvin Karunaratne argues in the Island that to ease irrigation water shortages, Sri Lanka must bring back past policies: “The solution to the current problems in the agriculture sector is to revive the effective cultivation administration system we once had,” he writes. “We have to act fast lest [we] should have to starve.”
Scholar Sudeep Chakravarti warns in the Dhaka Tribune that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh desperately need more assistance. Otherwise, “the result could be an implosion in southern Bangladesh—where a million Rohingya refugees are housed—with catastrophic socioeconomic and security implications, not just for Bangladesh, but the entire arc of eastern South Asia,” he writes.
In the Print, doctor Deepali Bhardwaj argues against new guidelines issued by India’s National Medical Commission that call on doctors to prescribe generic drugs over branded ones. “By forcing the doctors to prescribe only generic drugs, the NMC would be seriously compromising the healthcare system of the country,” she writes.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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