Space as a Tool in Indian Foreign Policy & Diplomacy

Technological capabilities in outer space have long been used as an effective tool of foreign policy. Some of the prominent examples being U.S using its LandSat satellites to give away data; the Russians flew our own Cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma. We in India have established a long-standing space programme with a history of over 50 years of space exploration. However, have we put to use our capabilities to use as a tool of foreign policy as effectively as other countries?

To recall some of such prominent exchanges, India has some of the best remote sensing satellites in the world and we have provisioned downlink capabilities for these remote sensing satellites for a number of countries. We share data with countries and are a part of international forums such as United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UNSPIDER). We have launched a number of foreign satellites for countries that do not have space launch capabilities. More recently, India committed to building a SAARC satellite, which may be regarded as a part of regional diplomacy. These are excellent steps towards utilization of space for diplomacy, however, there still seems to be a lot of room for exploiting our capabilities for regional and global diplomacy.

India is considered to be a leader in societal applications of space technology. We can indeed look at developing a role in capacity building for developing countries in usage of space technology to solve their local problems of land, water, forests, crop, etc., which have been successfully demonstrated by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). India is the host for Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP) in response to the UN General Assembly Resolution (45/72 of 11th December, 1990) endorsing the recommendations of UNISPACE-82, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). CSSTEAP has been running postgraduate level courses for several Asia Pacific countries. However, post such training we can very well develop a hands-on capacity building programme around using Indian satellite data and tools developed at downstream level such as Bhuvan to enable these interested countries to utilize space technology for the benefit of their society.

While there are tremendous opportunities for downstream utilization of data and training for using data generated by Indian space assets, capacity building can also be done in upstream. An excellent example for this is the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite Program (CBERS) technological cooperation program between Brazil and China, based on which five satellites have been flown since 1999. India has been cooperating on satellite payloads with other space faring countries for missions such as Chandrayaan, SARAL, Megha-Tropiques, but hasn’t had any dedicated roadmap for cooperation with the developing world on join-capacity building.

The new tools and governance applications that ISRO is now supporting such as alert system for unmanned railway crossings, identifying water sources, pipeline safety may just a tip of the iceberg of using space for adding immense value to improvement of lives of people, which may very well be extrapolated as a part of diplomacy by the government. Moreover, with India finishing up with the establishment of dedicated capabilities in regional navigation with the establishment of Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), there lays scope to offer the usage of this constellation as a part of regional cooperation.

Technological capacity based diplomacy may very well hold the key to deepening relationships both regionally and internationally for India. India’s space prowess must be effectively used as a tool in diplomacy & foreign policy for not only a regional capacity building and collaboration with developing nations but also expanding towards global one.