The Final Frontier
India vs. China: The Next Space Race?

Under Narendra Modi, India has stepped up its ambitions across the globe, increasingly acting like a great power in its own right and as a critical balance against a rising China. Is India now taking its rivalry with China to the final frontier, kicking off an Asian space race? The Financial Times thinks so:

A new space race is under way in Asia, with China and India duelling for dominance while other countries make leaps of their own. National pride and defence are major motivators, but so are practical considerations — generating income from satellite launches, mitigating natural disasters and monitoring crops. By establishing a presence in Earth’s orbit, and perhaps the expanse beyond it, governments and companies aim to ensure prosperity on the ground. […]

The broad goals of enhancing national defence and gaining international prestige remain powerful motivators for reaching skyward. But Asian countries also have specific, diverse and practical ambitions: to develop their own high-speed communications infrastructure, to explore for natural resources, to mitigate natural disasters and to snag satellite launch contracts from other nations.

The FT is right to note that there are many factors motivating the Chinese and Indian space programs, including the nationalistic showmanship that both Xi and Modi enjoy indulging in. But it is the economic considerations that are most crucial. Space races are largely about the development of domestic technologies and industries; programs like India’s Mars mission build public support for IT subsidies and encourage innovation elsewhere in the economy. And so far, the government’s increased space expenditures seem to be paying off for India: the country has lately earned an international reputation as the go-to country for low-cost satellite launches, and its space technologies have spurred useful applications in other sectors.

China, for its part, is surely not thrilled to see another Asian power emerge as a serious competitor in space. Although Chinese capabilities remain superior, the competing technologies derived from the Indian and Chinese space programs are already factoring into their geopolitical rivalry. China, for example, is hoping to kickstart its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) infrastructure plan by offering its global satellite-navigation services to the countries in that framework. India, which is developing its own such satellite system, has been skeptical about OBOR and does not want China to take the lead in controlling communications infrastructure throughout Asia.

The rivalry between China and India should not be overstated: this is not a replay of the U.S.-Soviet space race, and increased investments in space are sure to produce tangible benefits for both countries. Still, as both Beijing and New Delhi shoot for the stars to maximize their standing on the ground, space could well become yet another zone of competition between Asia’s two largest powers.

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