China takes seriously only the language of power, deterrence! Why India’s A-SAT missile test was a necessity

New Delhi | Updated: March 29, 2019 3:46:57 PM

China has put out a somewhat cautious statement to suggest that countries should “uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space” whereas Pakistan had a stern response calling upon international community to condemn India’s test.

ASAT MISSION SHAKTIIndia conducted ASAT test on Wednesday

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

After debating for more than a decade, India has now conducted its anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, pushing itself into an exclusive group of countries that includes the US, Russia and China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made this announcement in a televised address saying that the demonstration of the Indian ASAT capabilities has made it a true space power. Hitting a satellite at an altitude of 300 kms. in the low earth orbit, one must agree that this has been a fairly responsible act on India’s part because this would not create long-lasting space debris, which is a serious problem in space.

For example, the Chinese ASAT test in 2007 created a huge debris problem. The US ASAT test in 2008 was done at an altitude of 275 kms and the debris possibly came down in a few weeks. Thus, India will not come in for major flak on that count. As for the rationale and timing, there could be several factors at play. Clearly, the terrestrial competition with China and the larger geopolitical games underway in Asia have possibly had a determining say in the Indian ASAT decision. China’s growing power and aggressiveness, as well as its disregard for established global norms and rules means that it only understands the language of power and deterrence.

It was China’s 2007 ASAT test that broke a long-standing voluntary moratorium on such tests. Moreover, that test was particularly unfortunate because, as mentioned earlier, it created a huge debris field. Such disregard has become a characteristic of China’s behaviour. It appears that China will only take seriously the language of power and deterrence. Thus, demonstrating an ASAT capability was an absolute strategic necessity to let Beijing and others know that if Indian assets in outer space are attacked, India has the means to retaliate. A second important calculation for India is to not find itself in the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) trap yet again. In the case of the NPT, India’s reluctance to push for a nuclear test in the 1960s left it out of the NPT category of “nuclear weapon state”, and India was unwilling to give up the nuclear option by signing on as as a non-nuclear weapon state. Thus, India found itself outside the entire NPT structure.

Having gone through the “pariah” experience for three decades, India has been particularly mindful of the developments in the global governance area to avoid being caught in a similar trap. There have been a few initiatives on and off in the past decade to regulate activities in outer space and India did not want to be on the wrong side of the wall again. However, neither the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities proposed originally the European Union nor the current UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) seek to ban ASAT tests but it may have been the apprehension about such initiatives that could have motivated India to demonstrate the ASAT capability now.

There is also nothing that stops the current three countries who have tested ASAT capabilities from framing an NPT-like treaty for outer space denying others the technological capacity to develop such weapons. Moreover, India’s test does not violate any existing norms or rules, as the press note put out by the Ministry of External Affairs points out. India is a signatory to all the major agreements on outer space, including Moon Treaty that has seen very few signatories.

Nevertheless, some criticism and concern from other countries should be expected. China has put out a somewhat cautious statement to suggest that countries should “uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space” whereas Pakistan had a stern response calling upon international community to condemn India’s test. Russia and the US are yet to issue a statement. Countries that have pursued strong disarmament efforts such as Japan, for instance, could be a little uneasy with India’s test.

They could perceive India’s test as triggering fresh prospects for militarisation of outer space, which indeed would be unfortunate. India has little interest in militarization of space, considering how dependent India itself is on outer space for a variety of civilian needs. On the other hand, India also had little choice but to respond to China’s earlier test in order to maintain deterrence and protect India’s assets in outer space. Having done that, New Delhi should redouble its efforts to build a global movement to strengthen the norm of non-militarization of outer space.

(The author is Distinguished Fellow and Head, Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative Observer Research Foundation. Expressed views are personal)

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