From earth to space: India and China's space programmes gear up for intense competition ahead

China launched the final satellite for the Beidou system on 23 June. Consisting of 35 satellites, Beidou is an impressive operational satellite navigation system significant for China in a number of ways. Most importantly, it removes China's reliance on the US GPS system. China's space programme started in the late 1950s with rocket technology transfer from the Soviet Union, while India's space journey began in the 1960s with support from the US and France. Both countries have come a long way and are now ratcheting up their efforts to secure a foothold in this frontier as the world’s geopolitical battles get launched into space.
A Long March 3B rocket carrying the Beidou-3GEO3 satellite lifts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Xichang in China's southwestern Sichuan province, 23 June 2020. (STR/AFP)
A Long March 3B rocket carrying the Beidou-3GEO3 satellite lifts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Xichang in China's southwestern Sichuan province, 23 June 2020. (STR/AFP)

Asian space programmes had remained largely immune to international competition, unlike the Cold War space race. But that is no more the case. China’s emergence as a great power and its competition with other Asian powers mean that we are likely to see an intense space competition in Asia in the coming years. As Joan Johnson-Freese, professor, national security affairs at the US Naval War College pointed out in a 2014 article in space journal ROOM, the image, prestige and techno-nationalism that characterised the US-Soviet space competition is becoming a reality in Asia today. In addition, there are genuine national security-driven concerns driving the Asian space programmes.  

China’s space programme, mostly undertaken as a reaction to the US and Soviet programmes, began to take shape in the late 1950s. In the initial stages, China-Soviet cooperation was significant. This cooperation gave Beijing access to the Soviet’s early R-2 rocket technology Under a 1957 agreement, the Soviet Union transferred the R-2 technology to China, which became the technical foundation for China’s rocket industry.  Based on this initial collaboration, China launched its first rockets in September 1960. But this cooperation did not last long because of the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s. Nevertheless, China was able to develop its indigenised versions using the R-2 technology called Dong Feng or East Wind.

In terms of the total number of operational satellites, China is behind only the US with 363 satellites, overtaking Russia which has gone down to the third position with 169 operational satellites.

The domestic political and social challenges in China including the Cultural Revolution were problematic but the technology development continued, supported by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. The net result was the development of a new rocket, the Chang Zheng or Long March, which continues to be the backbone of China’s space programme.

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This file photo taken on 5 May 2020 shows a Long March 5B rocket lifting off from the Wenchang launch site on China's southern Hainan island. (STR/AFP)

India began its space journey slowly afterwards with the launch of a sounding rocket from Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram in South India in 1963. Like China, India too had leaned on foreign partners in the initial years. While some of this collaboration had continued, India is today a lot more self-sufficient. Some of India’s key early partners were the US and France, although India has also in recent years developed collaborative arrangements on a smaller scale with others including Israel and Japan. Also, India’s focus with regard to its space programme has been driven by its social and economic developmental agenda. The fact that space could play a larger role in national security was not lost on the national leadership but there was little focus on this until the mid-2000s.

China, of course, has advanced far ahead of India in the space sector. This is evident in a number of areas such as satellite launches, the navigation programme and crewed missions to space. In terms of the total number of operational satellites, China is behind only the US with 363 satellites, overtaking Russia which has gone down to the third position with 169 operational satellites. In terms of the number of launches per year, China surpassed the US in 2018 with 39 launches. In 2020, China plans to do about 50 launches, including around 10 by China’s private space industry. While the number of launches may not be an accurate indicator of the space prowess, it still demonstrates a strong launch infrastructure. In terms of tonnage sent to orbit per year, the US and Russia still continue to be ahead. In comparison, India lags behind with under 20 satellite launches per year.  

India became the first Asian country to undertake a successful Mars mission in 2014.

China also plans to use some of these launches for its inter-planetary and lunar missions. China is expected to launch its first Mars mission sometime in July this year (China piggybacked a Mars attempt on the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011, which failed), which will place a rover on Mars. Also planned is the Chang’e 5 mission that seeks to collect lunar samples and bring them back to Earth. India has had reasonable success on this count. India became the first Asian country to undertake a successful Mars mission in 2014. India did a successful Chandrayaan-1 mission in 2008 but a subsequent mission to land a rover failed in 2019. China made its first landing on the near side of the Moon in 2018 but India chose a far more ambitious target near the South Pole.

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India's Chandrayaan-2 rocket. (Indian Space Research Organisation website)

China’s many launch programmes have been made possible with several impressive heavy-lift rockets. In fact, the Long March family of rockets have become the workhorse in the Chinese space programme. Starting with Long March 1 (CZ-1) which launched China’s first satellite into orbit in 1970, it has developed 15 different variants, all by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). 

Its Long March 5 or CZ-5 is comparable to rockets operated by other space powers. Long March 5 has a maximum carrying capacity of 25,000 kg to low earth orbit and is comparable to the US’s Delta IV Heavy (28,370 kg to LEO), which has been active since 2004, or Europe’s Ariane 5 (21,000 kg to LEO) and Russia’s Proton-M (23,000 kg to LEO). Adding another feather to its cap, in June 2019, China for the first time launched a Long March 11 rocket from a sea launch platform, demonstrating flexible launch capabilities.  

The Beidou system is significant for China in a number of ways. First and foremost, it removes a big vulnerability in relying on the US GPS system, which China feared that the US could disrupt in case of a conflict. Second...

Beidou navigation system complete

Similarly, China has an impressive operational satellite navigation system, the Beidou, for which it did a final satellite launch on 23 June. The completed constellation consists of 35 satellites — 27 satellites in medium Earth orbits, five in geostationary orbits and three in inclined GEO orbits. China began the first phase of the Beidou in 2000 with four satellites, including a backup satellite, which had limited coverage. By 2012, the second phase of the navigation programme was complete, extending coverage to the broader Asia-Pacific region. Several countries including Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia are already using Beidou services.

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A model of the Beidou navigation satellites system is seen at an exhibition to mark China's Space Day 2019 on April 24, in Changsha, Hunan province, China, 23 April 2019. (Aly Song/REUTERS)

The Beidou system is significant for China in a number of ways. First and foremost, it removes a big vulnerability in relying on the US GPS system, which China feared that the US could disrupt in case of a conflict. Second, the Beidou system is linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aimed at servicing navigational requirements for states along the BRI. China claims that with the completion of the final phase, it will be able to offer worldwide services in 2020. As for its future plans, the Chinese government claims “a more ubiquitous, integrated and intelligent, comprehensive national positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) system is scheduled to be established by 2035."  

China has so far undertaken six human space missions, considered a major feat achieved only by the US and Russia so far. India is planning Gaganyaan, its first attempt at sending its astronauts to space in 2021 or 2022.

India, on the other hand, has a much smaller version of the GPS called the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), with an operational name of NavIC. The IRNSS constellation, consisting of eight satellites, provides coverage over India as well as the region extending up to 1500 km from its borders. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation, the NavIC has been developed for a range of functions including terrestrial, aerial and marine navigation, disaster management, vehicle tracking and fleet management and integration. The IRNSS provides two kinds of services — Standard Positioning Service (SPS) to all users and a Restricted Service (RS), an encrypted service for only authorised users.

Both China and India have also embarked on human spaceflight missions. China has so far undertaken six human space missions, considered a major feat achieved only by the US and Russia so far. India is planning Gaganyaan, its first attempt at sending its astronauts to space in 2021 or 2022.

China’s push in other areas such as lunar missions has created new Asian space synergies, leading to greater cooperation between India and Japan.

gsat30
India’s telecommunication satellite GSAT-30 was successfully launched on 17 January 2020 from Kourou launch base, French Guiana. (Indian Space Research Organisation website)

While these are all fairly remarkable and contribute to the overall space prowess of China and India, there are several developments in China’s military space programme that trigger concerns in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. While China may only be trying to catch up with the US and Russia, it has caused concerns in Asia. The return of the anti-satellite (ASAT) programme is a case in point. China’s first successful ASAT test in January 2007 pushed India to demonstrate its own capability in March 2019.*

Around the time when the International Space Station will be ready to wind down in the mid-2020s, China will be ready with its station and it will possibly be the only space station in operation.

China’s push in other areas such as lunar missions has created new Asian space synergies, leading to greater cooperation between India and Japan. In addition to the already-launched orbital and lander missions to the lunar surface, China plans to undertake more Moon missions in the future, including a possible crewed mission in the 2020s. By way of response, a joint India-Japan lunar mission to the Moon’s south pole is being planned for 2023. This would involve landing a rover that would conduct a series of scientific experiments, an operation quite similar to India’s failed Chandrayaan-2 mission.  

Remarkably, China also plans to set up a space station similar to the International Space Station (ISS). Around the time when the ISS will be ready to wind down in the mid-2020s, China will be ready with its station and it will possibly be the only space station in operation. China has scheduled a total of 11 launches to complete the construction of the space station by around 2023. These launches include the core, two experiment modules, four crewed spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft. India too has announced plans for developing its own small space station to conduct scientific experiments. This will be a follow up to India’s first astronaut mission, Gaganyaan in 2022.  

Though no country has stated it openly, all of these programmes are an indication of the ramping up of a space race in Asia. Given the larger geopolitical tensions between India and China, it is likely that outer space will also witness significant competition.   

*An anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon destroys or disrupts satellites. In January 2007, China became the third country to conduct a successful ASAT test after the US and Soviet Union.

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