A rendering of India's Chandrayaan-2 cruising above the moon and a photo of China's Chang’e-4 lander imaged by the Yutu-2 rover on the lunar farside. Credit: ISRO and CLEP/CNSA

On July 23, the day after India launched Chandrayaan-2 on the nation’s second mission to the moon, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry said China would like to work with India on space exploration.

For many, the idea of India-China space collaboration is difficult to fathom. For the last two decades, India and China have been engaged in an undeclared space race marked more by regional rivalry than neighborly competition.

India and China are nuclear powers that went to war briefly in 1962 over a border dispute that continues to this day.  In 2017, India and China engaged in a military standoff on the Doklam plateau, which lies at the junction between India, China and Bhutan.

For some, this backdrop doesn’t bode well for joint space exploration. However, two important facts need mentioned. First, despite major differences on the border issue, more than 40 years have passed without a single bullet being fired. Secondly, China is India’s second largest trading partner.

Space could emerge as one arena where both states could make a fresh beginning. There have been overtures from China regarding the need for international cooperation in fields like lunar and deep space exploration. China’s Chang’e-4 moon lander and rover system, currently exploring the lunar farside, is carrying payloads from the likes of Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia. This clearly indicated that China is ‘walking the talk.’

India, for its part, is not treating China as a pariah state. There is much of resistance from the United States and Europe to China and Russia’s draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects. However, India has taken more of a principled stand and is ready discussing this under the UN’s Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space resolution.

Some scientific organizations in India also have shown keenness to collaborate with China. On May 28 2018, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, in cooperation with the China Manned Space Agency, published the first Announcement of Opportunity inviting all UN member states to submit applications for conducting their scientific experiments on board the proposed Chinese Space Station. Recently, it has been announced that experiments of two Indian agencies, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and Indian Institute of Technology, have been selected.

The U.S. and Russia offers an inimitable example for space collaboration. There are major points of contention between these states, ranging from Crimea and Syria to cyberattacks and election interference. However, when it comes to collaboration in space, they have different agendas. They understand that mankind made it to the moon thanks to their two-way race for technological superiority. But as the world celebrates the 50thanniversary of the first human moon landing, there is no charm in carrying terrestrial confrontation into outer space. For nearly three decades, the U.S. and Russia have collaborated on building and operating the International Space Station. More significantly, the U.S. continues to depend on Russia for the supply of RD-180 rocket engines the U.S. uses to launch its spy satellites.

India and China are both aware of the financial and technological limitations involved in going solo to deep space. At the geopolitical level, space collaboration could help the two nations lessen their differences. Both nations need to remain sensitive to the possibility that their collaboration could be perceived as an anti-U.S. front. As such, it is important to argue that such collaborations are alliances for science. In fact, NASA could be approached to contribute payloads to any possible India-China planetary missions. The issue of NASA prohibiting any of its engineers or scientists from working with China needs to be handled tactfully and China should take a lead in that direction.

For more than five decades, humanity has talked about settling on other planets. There has never been such an opportune period in the history of space where the level of global interest, technological capability, public funding and private-industry participation has been at such a peak. Still, the target is far off and only collaborative efforts by various nations could offer the best results. India and China can take appropriate steps in that direction and should also encourage others to join the voyage.

Ajey Lele is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Dehli, India.

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?”