India’s ASAT missiles test established partial parity with China and superiority with Pakistan; here’s how

The international response to India’s test was cautious and subdued compared to a similar situation when China tested this technology in 2007.

ASAT was launched by DRDO

By Rajan Kumar

In an age of growing uncertainty, the acquisition and demonstration of technological capability become the main instrument through which nation-states communicate military parity or superiority to the adversaries. On March 27, India tested a complex ballistic missile technology by shooting down its satellite with remarkable precision in space. In a live televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared this exercise, codenamed Mission Shakti, a milestone in India’s space programme. Developed indigenously by the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), India became the fourth nation after the US, Russia and China to have acquired and tested this technology. The question is, why did India undertake this exercise, and how did the international community react to this mission?

India’s larger objectives were largely ‘demonstrative’ and ‘status-centric’. It wanted to send a message across to its regional rivals that it has a robust space programme capable of destroying the communication and military satellites in space. In a way, this was to announce a partial parity with China, and superiority with Pakistan. Space experts in India had expressed fear that in the eventuality of war, China may ‘blind’ India by numbing its satellites in the space. The new anti-satellite technology is likely to work as a deterrent for China as India can also retaliate. India claimed that it was not intended to threaten any country, but in a domain of perpetual hostility, any technological breakthrough becomes an imminent threat to the other nation, especially if it has a military component. The timing of the test and Modi’s address to the nation was aimed at galvanising electoral support for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The ‘status-centric’ behaviour of India can be adduced from the statements of the Prime Minister, “India established itself as a space power,” and the statement of the Ministry of External Affairs, “India joins an exclusive group of space-faring nations consisting of USA, Russia and China.”India has a latent desire to be recognised as the leading state of the world, and it feels that its rightful place has been denied due to its colonial history and discriminatory regulatory regimes of the Cold War period. It believes that this new technology, similar to the nuclear test of 1998, will enhance its status and place it in the privileged club of space leaders.

This test also contained a message to the US and Russia that they must accommodate India’s interests while creating a new regulatory regime on space. India has been a victim of discriminatory regimes where the nuclear states formed a cartel to block new states from testing or acquiring nuclear technology. India is yet to become a member of the Nuclear Supply Group. Similarly, the NPT and the CTBT regimes were discriminatory for India. At several international forums, India has been denied a place on the high table. The demonstration of the anti-satellite technology was a pre-emptive move to claim its place before a new cartel is created.

The international response to India’s test was cautious and subdued compared to a similar situation when China tested this technology in 2007. India’s anti-satellite test did not violate any international law, and therefore concerns raised were largely normative and ecological. The United States did not officially criticise India but expressed apprehensions about the debris management and possible arms race in the space. Acting U.S. Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said, “We all live in space, let’s not make it a mess. Space should be a place where we can conduct business. Space is a place where people should have the freedom to operate.” The issue of debris is a significant concern for the US as it fears possible collusions of floating fragments with its commercial and surveillance satellites. The US is believed to be tracking debris created by Mission Shakti. India dismissed such fear by saying that the test was at a low earth orbit and the debris would disappear within a few weeks. Another worry of the US is that Pakistan may try to acquire this technology from China.

Russia was careful and guarded in its official statement and directed its ire towards the US which she thinks is responsible for the weaponisation of the outer space. “We highlight the non-directedness of this test against any specific country declared by the Indian leadership, as well as the reassurance of the continuity of New Delhi foreign policy to prevent the deployment of weapons in outer space and thereby the development of an arms race in it,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It further alleged that the US is unwilling to abandon the weaponisation of the outer space, and the Trump administration has instead ordered the creation of a Space Force to enhance its capabilities. This sets up a dangerous precedent and is pushing other states to acquire more weapons for their security. The arms race which begins at the top, spirals down to the bottom. Russia highlighted the need for a multilateral and legally binding treaty for keeping outer space open and peaceful.

China was cautious in its official statement, and its Foreign Ministry noted, “We have noticed reports and hope that each country will uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space.” The Global Times, a state control media of China, drew attention to the “western double standards” which criticised its anti-satellite test in 2007, but viewed India’s test as an inevitable outcome of ongoing “China-India competition.” It further stated that India would “trail China in military and comprehensive strength for a long time” and “ India’s limited strength can’t deter China, nor is it deterrent to Pakistan as strong as some Indian people think.” In short, China tried to downplay this achievement, highlighted its superiority over India and criticised the West for double standards.

Pakistan invoked moral responsibility and reminded India of its commitment, “countries which have in the past strongly condemned demonstration of similar capabilities by others will be prepared to work towards developing international instruments to prevent military threats relating to outer space.” Experts believe that it is just a matter of time before Pakistan undertakes this test with the help of China.

To sum up, India’s anti-satellite test was primarily demonstrative and status-centric. Having demonstrated this technology successfully, it can now join the chorus of the de-weaponisation of the outer space and the creation of a regulatory regime. The behaviour of the powerful states shows little sign of any real de-militarisation and is aimed primarily at blocking the new members from acquiring this technology. Such positions are hypocritical and more states are likely to undertake such tests in the years to come.

(The author is Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed are his personal.)

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