Commentary | Modi’s U.S. Visit: Can Space Transform the Relationship?

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This week Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, with the hope of reinvigorating the Indo-U.S. partnership. Despite a continuous development in bilateral relations, there is a widespread sentiment in both capitals that the relationship has plateaued after reaching a high point after the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.

While India and the U.S. could be perceived as natural partners — as the world’s oldest and largest democracies — there has been a lack of truly transformational initiatives to help drive the relationship. However, this does not necessarily equate with a dearth of ideas. Indeed, for the past few years, outer space cooperation has been suggested as a big-ticket item with the potential to transform Indo-U.S. relations.

On Sept. 24, India proved its mettle with its successful Mars mission. By entering the red planet’s orbit on the first attempt, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mangalyaan demonstrated India’s growing technological prowess. Mangalyaan thus solidified India’s influence and presence within the outer space domain. The Mars mission, therefore, provides an important opportunity for Modi and Obama to re-evaluate bilateral space cooperation for mutual benefit.

 

Space, the Right Incentive 

While India and the U.S. have enjoyed several decades of cooperation in the space domain, it is nowhere near its potential. Five years ago, Karl F. Inderfurth, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, and C. Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian foreign policy and security analyst, articulated the potential for space to emerge as the nucleus of the Indo-U.S. partnership. Since then, there have been several rounds of Indo-U.S. strategic dialogues, as well as more focused U.S.-India Joint Space Working Group meetings on civil space cooperation. Despite the regularity of these discussions, space remains at the periphery of the relationship.

Unlike nuclear cooperation — which includes civil nuclear cooperation — outer space provides a relatively noncontroversial area for a deeper Indo-U.S. partnership. Space presents the opportunity to leverage a diverse range of stakeholders: national space agencies, science and technology research institutions and the private sector, which now plays an integral role in the space domain in both countries. Moreover, space cooperation has the potential to revitalize STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) educational and commercial opportunities, for the betterment of both economies.

One way to model a successful Indo-U.S. space partnership is by establishing a U.S.-India Commercial Space Initiative and a bilateral Space Knowledge Initiative, similar in many ways to what India and the U.S. established on clean energy or agricultural cooperation. The Clean Energy Initiative is a particularly apt example, as it draws on public-private sector partnerships; the two governments invest $25 million each and the private sector contributes $50 million in additional funds. Developing a similar initiative that utilizes the diverse range of actors with interests in space would help cement a multifaceted partnership that transcends rigidly delineated government-to-government relations.

 

Strategic Imperatives

Space also provides a potential avenue for military cooperation. As the strategic contest for space and influence in Asia becomes more pronounced, Indo-U.S. space cooperation could help buttress regional stability.

Evolving competition in the Indo-Pacific provides a framework for Indo-U.S. collaboration in maritime domain awareness. Leveraging space for enhanced maritime cooperation would provide India and the U.S. more robust coverage of the Indo-Pacific maritime commons. Going forward, extending this cooperation to the skies in order to heighten air domain awareness could prove equally useful.

Furthermore, traditional issues, such as space traffic management, provide fertile ground for deeper engagement. Satellites have proliferated, space has become increasingly congested, and space accessibility is threatened by the rising amounts of debris in orbit and the potential for collision cascading. In this precarious environment, space situational awareness (SSA) is increasingly relevant. SSA allows spacefaring nations to predict, and promptly react to, the changing physical surroundings in space, whether space meteorology or man-made disturbances, such as orbital debris. Given that India and the U.S. have debris tracking capabilities, space traffic management and SSA information sharing provide a means for both states to help contribute to the sustainability of the space environment while protecting their space-based assets.

 

Cementing an Indo-U.S. Space Partnership

While the suggestions above are by no means exhaustive, it is clear that space provides a unique opportunity to add new vigor to a critical relationship. In 2010, President Obama and then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that “a natural partnership exists between India’s dynamic human enterprise and the U.S. stored history of space exploration.” As India rides on the wave of excitement from its recent Mars mission, it may be time to put those words into action.

 

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. She served at India’s National Security Council Secretariat from 2003 to 2007. Jennifer McArdle is a research associate at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and a fellow in the Center for Revolutionary Scientific Thought in Washington.