The increasing competition for space-related power and prestige in Asia has echoes of the Cold War space race of the mid-20th century. In 1961, John F. Kennedy, a young, charismatic leader determined to land a man on the moon, had just taken the oath of office in the United States; the Soviet Union put the first man in space; and in Pakistan, world renowned physicist Abdul Salam was convincing President Ayub Khan to set up a national space agency, which was considered to be the first in the subcontinent.
In September of the same year, Salam started the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) in Karachi, eight years before India formalized its own space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). After that, four top scientists from Pakistan were sent to United States for training at NASA. Salam’s growing eminence in the scientific world won him accolades. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, which became a beacon to attract young talents to Pakistan’s space organization.
In 1962, Pakistan became the third Asian country to launch rockets. That year, SUPARCO launched its first rocket, Rehbar I, from the Karachi coast with help from NASA just before India launched its first rocket from Thumba launching station. Despite this headstart, today SUPARCO is a long way behind ISRO due to poor education funding and military leadership interfering in scientific goals.
SUPARCO soon moved its focus to the atomic bomb project, taking key resources and scientists away from space endeavors. But the most drastic fall in the Pakistani space program came between the 1980s and 1990s, when then-President Zia-ul-Haq cut off the funding to major projects such as the communication satellite program. After that, military generals were made leaders in the organization, replacing scientists, and the new focus was on countering India through conventional and nuclear acquisitions. That left little funds to take on some of Pakistan’s more ambitious space projects. By contrast, ISRO launched its first communication satellite in 1981, started technology sharing programs with many countries, and in 1988 unveiled a remote sensing satellite system, which is now the largest in the world. Pakistan, meanwhile, only launched its first satellite, Badr I, in 1990 with the assistance of the Chinese.
Later, the Chinese Ministry of Aerospace Industry and SUPARCO signed an agreement in 1991 on space cooperation, but for decades they had little to show for it. Space cooperation between China and Pakistan focused mainly on “personnel training and infrastructure development” for the next 20 years.
In 2005 China started the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) with Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey. The convention was signed in Beijing. The focus of the organization is “to promote and strengthen the development of collaborative space programs among its member states by establishing the basis for cooperation in peaceful applications of space science and technology.” APSCO is considered the second largest intergovernmental and multilateral space organization after the European Space Agency. Iran is expected to soon expand collaboration with APSCO and join two of its existing projects.
In 2011, as part of Pakistan’s Space Program 2040, the Chinese-manufactured PAKSAT-1R, an upgraded version of PAKSAT-1, was launched in China. PAKSAT-1R was a milestone in China-Pakistan space ties. The satellite has a lifespan of 15 years, during which time it will provide communication services across South and Central Asia, Eastern Europe, East Africa, and East Asia.
The two countries also signed a 2012-2020 roadmap for space cooperation between SUPARCO and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in 2012. During Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Beijing in 2018, both countries agreed to move forward with that agreement. As part of their joint collaboration on space missions, Pakistan has expressed its willingness to send a Pakistani astronaut into space on a Chinese spacecraft. At the AirTech conference in December 2017, Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman stated that Pakistan would send astronauts into space with China’s help by 2020. China has also successfully launched two remote sensing satellites for its “all-weather” friend Pakistan. And in April 2019 China and Pakistan signed an agreement on space exploration, which marks a new phase in space science cooperation between the all-weather allies.
China has proposed building a “Space Silk Road” to virtually enhance its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the linchpin China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, into a three-dimensional (space, land, and water) super-project. In the Space Silk Road, China’s Beidou satellites would help with navigation from submarines to aircraft and will connect all the BRI countries. Pakistan also requested China’s participation in the development of the Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS). PRSS-1, launched in 2018, is considered yet another flagship project for China-Pakistan relations.
The bilateral association between the two countries in space has opened new vistas of socioeconomic and scientific cooperation, which gives a boost to their historically cordial bilateral relations in other fields. Pakistan’s space program is set to benefit greatly from China’s advanced technology. According to a Pakistan-based development analyst, transfer of China’s space technology will help Pakistan achieve progress in both the defense and economic spheres.
In the 21st century, space technology is essential for socioeconomic development, infrastructure upgrades, agricultural production, and urban planning. Providing developing countries with assistance in space programs has long been a part of China’s geopolitical ambition in order to establish hegemony in the South Asia region. China doesn’t benefit technologically from Pakistan, given the mismatch in their capabilities, but Beijing considers space cooperation as an opportunity to expand its soft power.
India shares borders with both China and Pakistan and has unresolved border disputes with both as well. All three nations have nuclear capabilities and a significant inventory of missiles. With its recent anti-satellite missile test, “Mission Shakti,” India became the fourth country in the world — after the United States, Russia, and China — to acquire the strategic capacity to shoot down enemy satellites, placing India in the exclusive club of space superpowers. In light of that, China has urged all countries to keep outer space for peace and cooperation.
India has also been one of the major contributors to the Outer Space Treaty, which was put in place by the United Nations in order to ensure states used space for peaceful purposes. India’s space program has been used for civilian purposes and emphasizes developing space systems that offer social, scientific, and economic benefits. With the privatization of the Indian space industry, India has witnessed the rise of startups like Team Indus, Bellatrix Aerospace, and Astrome Technologies, which are planning to bring out their own space-based products and services. The Space Activities bill 2017, which is still pending in the Indian parliament, was put forth to encourage both the public and private sectors to participate in the space program.
In 2019, India launched the 2,230-kg GSAT-9 “South Asia Satellite” in order to build goodwill in the region and to counter Chinese influence but archrival Pakistan backed out of what was supposed to be a pan-SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) project. When India first suggested the idea, Pakistan offered money and assistance but New Delhi said it would bear all the costs as a “gift” to the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan then refused to participate. According to a spokesperson from Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, “as India was not willing to develop the project on a collaborative basis, it was not possible for Pakistan to support it as a regional project under the umbrella of SAARC.”
With the inclusion of India and Pakistan in both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and SAARC, these South Asian countries have a major positive role to play in space rather than countering each other. If India and Pakistan follow a path of confrontation on future space projects, it will only deepen the cooperation between Pakistan and China.
Preethi Amaresh is an Indian author who is pursuing her Ph.D. in International Relations at the Geneva School of Diplomacy, Switzerland.