An Asian Space Race?


South Korea is hoping to get spacefaring nation status by launching a satellite on the Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle 1 by the end of November provided Russian agencies supply the requisite hardware assistance. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Seoul has been keen to join the elite club of Asian space powers. South Korea has made significant investment in the space arena but has yet to get the desired results.

For the last couple of years, efforts by South Korea and other Asian states to excel in the space arena have been viewed by some as an indicator of the beginning of an Asian space race.

Is the notion of a space race being debated in the Asian context a reality or some academic fallacy? Is it correct to draw a conclusion based only on geopolitical and geostrategic considerations while sidelining the geo-economical and technological realities? Is the formulation of the space race notion being done analogous to the arms race in the Cold War? Is such comparison correct in the 21st century? Should South Korea’s repeated efforts to succeed with its rocket technology be considered as a quest to start (and win) a race with other states in the region or as a desire to genuinely develop its technology base for the purposes of development? Or both?

It is important to consider various issues to put the notion of an Asian space race into context. China, Japan and India are the main spacefaring states in the region. Among these three, India is the newest arrival, having made its entry in the 1980s. Over the last few decades these states have succeeded in establishing themselves as major space powers both regionally and to a certain extent even globally.

In Asia, based largely on their investments in space (this mostly matches the political and geographical realities as well), three groupings could be done:

  • Group 1: Japan, China and India.
  • Group 2: Israel and Iran.
  • Group 3: North Korea, South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the last two groups, Israel and Iran are spacefaring states and North and South Korea have made a few unsuccessful attempts to join their ranks. It is important to note that various smaller Asian states are also keen to possess their own space assets and some have already launched satellites for themselves with external assistance.

It has been mostly argued that Japan, China and India are engaged in a space race. This argument has gained ground in recent years particularity after the three states launched Moon missions in quick succession in 2007 and 2008. Since political differences do exist between China and Japan and between China and India, the talk of a race receives more credibility. It has also been highlighted that no collaborative efforts in the space arena exist among these states, indicating that they do consider each others as rivals.

Alternatively, if political rivalries are the reasons for races, the more fearsome rivalries are found between North and South Korea and between Iran and Israel. These states do not have healthy diplomatic |relationships.

China, Japan and India are all expanding their space programs. Japan has an independent space program but also a certain amount of collaboration and dependence on the United States. Also, Japanese space policies in particular and security policies in general have the U.S. inclination and reliance. In contrast, the military vigilance between India and China is of higher grade, and both states could be viewed as competitors in the economic field too. Because of such geostrategic considerations there has been talk about the rivalry mainly being between India and China in the Asian theater. However, comparison of their space programs does not totally support this argument.

China started making investments in the space area with more aggression mainly after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. This war and the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, which China viewed as a deliberate attack undertaken using space technologies, were the prime reason for China to enhance its investments in space technologies. The idea was not to allow U.S. forces to have superiority in the Taiwan theater in case of any eventualities. Hence, India should not be viewed as a prime motivator.

Presently, both China and India are undertaking their investments in space according to their own roadmaps. China’s space white papers and various policy statements issued by India clearly indicate their present and future ambitions in space. China is keen to undertake a manned Moon mission and its efforts are concentrated towards that, directly or indirectly. This is not the case with India, whose major focus is still to support socioeconomic needs.

To date, China has achieved a significant amount of success with its manned missions, its development of a space station and its navigation program. India has very limited ambitions in all these fields. Hence, it could be inappropriate to view these states as competitors. In the strategic realm, it appears that China is competing more with the United States than with India. China is undertaking more than 20 rocket launches a year against one or two carried out by India. Naturally, even in space commerce, China is far ahead of India. Also, China is using space as a tool for diplomacy, particularly in Latin America and Africa, and helping various states to develop their space programs.

Israel’s space program is older than and superior to Iran’s. But Iran could try to catch up to a certain extent in the coming years. Similarly, the rivalry between North and South Korea could have some reflections in the space field too.

China has a much advanced space program and no other Asian power appears to be capable of matching it. The programs of states like Iran and the Koreas are too undersized to initiate a race. India, being a middle-sized power in space, is definitely worth noting, but is not of the nature to start a contest in space.


Ajey Lele is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and author of the book “Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?”