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China is developing new launch vehicles, spacecraft, and space stations to demonstrate it is a leading nation. (credit: Xinhua)

Paradigmatic shifts in space?

Space policies of China and India: priorities, long-term focuses, and differences

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Space has animated both China and India since ancient times, with mythology and folklore about what lay up there amongst the stars. Chinese mythology has given us folktales like that of Chang’e the Moon goddess, Tianwen or heavenly questions, and the Yuegong-1 or heavenly palace. For India, the mythology of space can be inferred from such ancient mythical invocations like the Navagraha (nine planets), the folklore around eclipses and the invisible planets, and Rahu and Ketu (astrological connotations), which by 499 AD resulted in mathematical calculations by Aryabhatta, and his study of solar and lunar eclipses. Aryabhatta correctly attributed the brightness of the Moon and planets as reflected sunlight. India’s first satellite that was launched in 1975 was named after him. The seven main stars of the cup shaped Ursa Major were viewed as the seven sages (सप्तर्षि-Saptarishi or saptarṣī) in Indian mythology. In Indian epics like Mahabharata (written on events about 5,000 to 3,000 years ago), topics ranging from philosophy, cosmology, statecraft, and ethics were discussed. Steven R. Weisman, writing in The New York Times on “Many Faces of the Mahabharatha”, specified:

Modern India is a country in which a lawyer and teacher will tell you with certainty that references to the cosmic weapons used by a hero in the Mahabharata intentionally prefigured the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative of President Reagan.

You can gauge the effects of these ancient thinking on space and its connections to life on Earth on China and India of today and their space ambitions and programs.

Why space

As China and India emerged from the colonial period in the late 1940s, investments in space were prioritized with both Jawaharlal Nehru and Mae Zedong recognizing the contribution of space innovation to national development goals and in inculcating scientific temper. The father of India’s space program, Vikram Sarabhai, stated that India must develop its space program to sustain its people, even though it could not afford to compete at the level of super power rivalry between the US and the USSR. For Nehru, Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai played critical roles in conceptualizing the importance of space for India’s scientific image and technological prowess. The father of China’s space program, Qian Xuesen, played a key role in establishing China’s ballistic missile program and helped guide the first generation of Chinese space scientists and engineers who kickstarted China’s space program. The influence of Qian Xuesen on Mao and the development of China’s first Long March rocket is well known, especially his specialization on jet propulsion.

For better or worse, China, under an authoritarian Communist Party of China (CPC) regime, has ushered in a paradigmatic shift in how state-funded space programs are viewing space.

China and India viewed space development as showcasing their civilizational identity, which meant prestige, reputation, decolonization of knowledge systems (China’s century of humiliation is over; China has risen; India vis-à-vis the impact of British colonialism), development of indigenous technology, and the connection between space and nuclear technology research (China (1964) and India (1974) tested nuclear weapons during the Cold War.) Such shaping influences were affected by political culture in an Asian context: overarching belief systems of how societies are organized politically based on local epistemologies, the decolonization of knowledge and beliefs, and the limits and/or possibilities that political culture places on how systems of thought are organized, out of which flows policies; what should be prioritized at the level of state (with elite consensus) and societal input, and why that is important for policy prioritization. For both China and India, development of space capacity occupied a high place of honor and was a top policy priority. They both cared, and invested, in becoming civilizational Great Powers.

China and India’s contemporary space-scape

For better or worse, China, under an authoritarian Communist Party of China (CPC) regime, has ushered in a paradigmatic shift in how state-funded space programs are viewing space. This change in strategic conversation from Cold War concepts like prestige and reputation, and the ubiquitous space laws that came out of these systemic contexts (superpower rivalry), to the resources argument (we can make money in space) was ushered in by Chinese space scientists of their lunar mission. These senior scientists highlighted why China should establish a lunar program at all in 2002: to study the lunar resources for utilization purposes; first by sending robotic missions, and followed by a human mission. This year, within the context of that resource-oriented narrative, China and Russia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to jointly establish a research base on the Moon during the period 2036–2040.

Besides concentrating on lunar resources and the development of its Tiangong space station, the National Natural Science Foundation of China allocated $2.3 million for Chinese scientists to study the feasibility of in orbit assembly of a kilometer-wide space station as part of China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021–25). The thrust of this particular project is to bring down the weight of construction materials to be launched to space, so that more construction materials can be launched at lower cost. This has strategic implications for China’s Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) plans, which will require in orbit assembly of SBSP satellites to collect solar power in space and beam it back to Earth. The timeline for SBSP is that by 2050, China will construct SBSP satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and demonstrate microwave beaming of solar power collected in space to receiving rectennas on Earth that will turn SBSP into electricity to power China from space. Long Lehua, a key designer of China’s Long March rockets. indicated in a presentation in July 2021 that around 100 Long March 9 heavy lift rockets (140 metric tons to Low Earth Orbit-LEO) would be required to construct a 10,000-ton SBSP infrastructure in GEO. He dwelled on the idea of making the Long March 9 reusable.

China recently announced that it would have an asteroid exploration mission by 2022. This mission will collect samples from the near-Earth asteroid Kamo'oalewa, and the same spacecraft, once it delivers the samples to Earth, will then be launched to the asteroid belt. This particular asteroid mission is being named after Zheng He, the ancient Chinese explorer and admiral of China’s famous treasure ships fame in the 15th century. The mission will utilize nanotechnology to carry out exploration of the Comet 133P/Elst–Pizarro. Critically, Russia has joined in with China on this asteroid mission. According to a China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) paper:

ZhengHe flies an over ten-year mission, launching in 2022 to reach the NEA 2016HO3, return 200-1000g sample back to earth within 2-3 years, then continue its journey to rendezvous with the Main Belt comet 133P/Elst-Pizarro just before it reaches perihelion in 2030 and remain there for one year to carry on remote sensing and in-situ measurement.

India has a robust lunar program and has signed an agreement with Japan to study the Moon together that will include a resource prospecting mission. By end of 2021, India plans to launch its Aditya 1 mission to study the Sun by locating a satellite at the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point-L1. An Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) statement states that “Aditya-L1 with additional experiments can now provide observations of Sun’s Corona (soft and hard X-ray, Emission lines in the visible and NIR), Chromosphere (UV) and photosphere (broadband filters). In addition, particle payloads will study the particle flux emanating from the Sun and reaching the L1 orbit, and the magnetometer payload will measure the variation in magnetic field strength at the halo orbit around L1.”

One of the usual criticisms of space laws from the Cold War era is that they are solely focused and offer advantages to state-funded space programs, no matter how unrepresentative some of those states really are of their people, to the detriment of private enterprise.

India is aiming to send humans to LEO by 2022 or 2023. India is also investing in building a heavy-lift rocket and demonstrating reusability by 2025. A statement issued by ISRO Chairman K. Sivan on January 1, 2021, specified that “in line with global directions, we [must] develop heavy-lift launch vehicle, semi-cryogenic stage, reusable launch vehicle, advanced propulsion, next-generation avionics, advanced materials, dynamic space applications and efficient integration of space-based services, as well as advanced space science missions”. The former president of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, was a fierce proponent of SBSP as a climate change solution, but there is no official program that we know of about ISRO carrying out feasibility studies of this renewable energy source from space.

Space laws: Both China and India are working on draft space laws that can somehow bridge the gap between international global norms and the tensions that exists in their regional or local applicability. One of the usual criticisms of space laws from the Cold War era is that they are solely focused and offer advantages to state-funded space programs, no matter how unrepresentative some of those states really are of their people, to the detriment of private enterprise. Global norms can create tensions in terms of indigenous social structures and raise key questions on whose global norms and which communities do they really represent. This applies to international law as well. Given the growing move towards the applicability of space resources and their utilization, the establishment of national legislations prioritizing the private sector, followed by development of institutional mechanisms, is underway. India established a New Space India Ltd in 2019 to regulate and better organize its own private space sector. China issued a Document 60 in 2014 to direct its own private sector including space, strictly under President Xi Jinping’s reform and innovation policy. Former China National Space Administration (CNSA) Director Xu Dazhe specified that China is working on a national space law.

Spacepower and military applications: China and India view spacepower—the ability to project military space technology to influence others’ behavior—as important dimensions of their Great Power statuses. Both have invested in developing their military space capacity. China tested its anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in 2007 and have subsequently improved upon its rendezvous and proximity operation (RPO) capabilities to include targeting satellites in both LEO and GEO, and have developed robotic arms for some of its satellites that could be utilized for dual purposes. In 2019, India tested an ASAT weapon that took out a target satellite in LEO. This marked a shift in India’s space program, under the direction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tweeted after the ASAT launch conducted by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as India having arrived as a spacepower. Subsequently, India is shaping up to develop a Defense Space Agency and is working on space-based electronic intelligence (ELINT), communication intelligence (COMINT), and space tracking.

Long-term ambitions

China has long-standing deep space ambitions that include a Mars sample return mission, development a Mars human landing system, and building a Earth-Mars cargo return and a Mars base by 2045. Xi has issued direction to shift China from manufacturing to services and innovation-based economy by 2035, a modernized socialist economy. China is developing a Mars helicopter for surveillance in its future Mars missions. Xi’s innovation policy highlights technologies like space, artificial intelligence, nano and quantum technologies, and satellite Internet. China announced its own satellite constellation of about 12,992 satellites called Hongyan. The first batch of 60 satellites are scheduled for launch by 2022. A Chinese private space company, Galaxy Space, aims to launch a constellation of 144 5G satellites in LEO to build upon satellite Internet capacities. Space is an integral part of Xi’s China Dream, seen as vital for national rejuvenation and turning China into a lead space power by 2049.

There is a major strategic difference in that China is developing its civil-military fusion unlike India, where separate organizations deal with civil and military space.

India’s investment in space is starting to be located within its grand strategic perspective, especially under the current Modi government, which projects India as a great power and space as a part of India’s great power status. There is a growing idea of civilizational exceptionalism that informs Modi’s policies. Under Modi, and with a full majority in the Indian parliament, investments and policy priorities are easier to pass under majority vote requirements. Under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government, India is a much more assertive power with hard power demonstrations, such as a nuclear weapons test in 1998 under BJP leader A B Vajpayee as prime minister and the ASAT test in 2019 under Modi. They demonstrate India is vying for global prominence. Modi has instituted a National Initiative for Developing and Harnessing Innovation and allocated resources for sending humans to LEO by 2023. India has ambitions of a second Mars mission, further deep space exploration, and development of reusable rockets. Once such logistics systems are accomplished, the 2030s and 2040s will look very different for space with cost-effective access.


There is a major strategic difference in that China is developing its civil-military fusion unlike India, where separate organizations deal with civil and military space. Under President Xi’s guidance, China has made it a priority to fuse civil and military capabilities, with the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) being the primary body for space coordination, under which is the CNSA. In order to mandate civil-military fusion for the private sector, China passed a new national defense law in December 2020, that came into effect in January 2021. This law mandates China’s private sector to work for the national defense and share intelligence when called upon to do so, by the CPC. Unlike India, China has included space-based communications and other advanced technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence as “new infrastructure,” as per the powerful China National Development and Reform Commission.

In India, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is under the Department of Space, while DRDO is under the Ministry of Defence. The key political difference is that while India is a democracy, China is a one-party authoritarian system with no avenues for democratic representation of its people except via CPC membership if political power is sought.

Why do China and India matter?

It is pertinent to keep China and India in any analysis of space futures, space power projection, and ambitions for space resource development and utilization. Both recognize the diplomatic attractiveness of showcasing their spacepower with China’s Belt and Road Space information corridor and India using space as part of diplomacy to include the launch of a South Asia satellite. Given the history of conflict between China and India, however, it is unlikely that we will see deep-seated space cooperation between these two space powers of Asia. Both will utilize space as part of their grand strategy to cement regional and global influence. It is likely that the spacepower projection of one would lead to demonstration of spacepower projection of another (China’s ASAT 2007 was the catalyst for India’s 2019 ASAT test.) A disputed border with both utilizing space support for terrestrial missions augments the priority both would place on their military space programs. Both use space-based reconnaissance and navigation over the oceans, including disputed areas like the South China Sea, to maintain vigilance for freedom of navigation, and for building partnerships.

China will, however, pull ahead given its long-term, clearly articulated goals of space dominance and space resource development, and with the financial resources it can bring to the table. India will have to play catchup.

Any understanding of China and India’s space policies will have to account for internal regime structures (authoritarian versus democratic), economic capabilities, regional and global systemic influences on their space prioritization, and growing ambitions to utilize space for economic development. Economic returns from space utilization will influence how space policy, space law, space norms, and space futures will be considered, thereby ushering in the paradigmatic shift in space discourse. The entry of the private space sector and the multiplicity of state actors in the space domain further complicates the idea of global norms and their constituent effects. Chinese and Indian academic and strategic communities, especially India’s commercial space sector, are becoming not only a critical part of constituting norms, but also as a pressure point to push for further opening of the space sector to embrace more diversity of ideas and regional matrixes of influence. One can see expressions of nationalism in both China and India’s commercial space sector resulting in playing into the space power projection narratives of policy elites. Political identities, ethnic kinship patterns, strategic cultures, civilizational pride, and regime types will continue to play vital roles as both China and India shape their space future.

China will, however, pull ahead given its long-term, clearly articulated goals of space dominance and space resource development, and with the financial resources it can bring to the table. India will have to play catchup or come up with an ambitious long-term plan of resource utilization supported by funding. Both will play critical roles in constituting space governance and in determining which norms and value systems get adopted with far reaching consequences for outer space affairs.

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