India’s strategic rival China has already made advances in maintaining a sustained human presence in orbit and the learning curve for India appears steep. Only collaboration with Russia can give India a leg up and may perhaps be the only path for India to catch up to China in any meaningful way, writes Aditya Pareek, Research Analyst at the Bangalore-based Takshashila Institution.
Russia and China have seen their interests converge in opposition to the West in many strategic domains, including outer space. The two nations are collaborating on a lunar scientific exploration project called the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). Russia may also be helping China develop an early warning system with orbital components. These moves can be interpreted by some as the two nations presenting a quasi-joint front and an alternative to a de-facto US dominated order in outer space.
The International Space Station (ISS), the iconic symbol of multilateral international co-operation in orbit, has long been plagued by many problems. These include failing equipment reaching the end of its service life, cracks in the modules and threats of a Russian withdrawal potentially taking away a substantial part of the existing structure, leaving it a mere shadow of itself.
Russia has contemplated pulling out of the ISS since at least 2009. At the time, it was even giving serious thought to detaching Russian modules from the ISS instead of letting them be decommissioned with the rest of the station.
By contrast, recently Russia has launched an integrated scientific module called “Nauka” to the ISS, and has an agreement in place with NASA for outer space co-operation until 2030. Russia’s state space company ROSCOSMOS chief Dmitry Rogozin has also recently clarified that previous reports of his remarks about pulling out of the ISS reflected an error in interpretation and Russia is not looking to pull out after all.
Russia also has plans to launch a separate space station by 2025, likely partly motivated by the anticipated failure of equipment in an “avalanche” of malfunctions on board the ISS at around the same time. This concern becomes aggravated due to the sheer old age of the ISS and numerous cracks in the modules, leading to atmosphere leaks.
China has already launched the core module, Tianhe, for its Tiangong Space Station, which has many similarities to the former Soviet Space station Mir but is overall smaller in size.
It is curious that Russia and China have not pursued a joint Space Station project like ILRS. One possible reason behind the lack of Russia-China cooperation on a joint space station could be Russia’s desire to maintain some strategic autonomy and not live up to the “Junior Partner” image that a lot of observers in the West attribute to it in the highly pragmatic and tentative alliance it has with China.
Nevertheless, Russia has shown a willingness to send a crew of cosmonauts to Tiangong and China has welcomed it. Most interestingly, an article in China’s state controlled Global Times, quoting unnamed “observers”, asserts that “while Moscow has decided to do it alone, it has not shut the door for future cooperation on China’s upcoming space station, which is expected to be operational by 2022.”
China’s national prestige and demonstrated space capabilities will likely be boosted by building Tiangong on its own. The main Chinese goal in this endeavour may be to leave little doubt that it has now entered the same league as Russia and the US, the two pioneering space powers.
With a proven heavy lift launch capability in the form of its Long March 5B and other successive rockets, China will likely continue to undertake more and more ambitious missions and orbital launches. Its efficient launch capability, space technology, industrial base and a burgeoning economic wherewithal to support it all gives Beijing increasingly little reason to depend on Moscow or any other partner for achieving national objectives in space.
It is more likely that China engages with Moscow out of international political balancing and counter-balancing concerns. However, in addition to a shared adversary in Washington, the two nations also share many strategic alignment goals.
The Wolf Amendment makes it impossible for the US to engage with China on any space co-operation, thus making a space race and opposing blocs emerging between China and US inevitable. Russia had its own considerable space capabilities and can shift this balance in the favour of the party it aligns with, thus making it indispensable to Beijing in this contention against the US.
Similarly, India, which is growing ever close to the US, apart from serving as an important lynchpin on terrestrial security co-operation, can also become a major partner in space co-operation. With its own relatively nascent but efficient launch capabilities, New Delhi can be instrumental in supplementing the payload and crew missions required for any prolonged missions in orbit.
According to Chairman Dr. K Sivan of the Indian Space Agency (ISRO), India is also looking at a sustained human presence in space and that technology for an Indian space station may emerge from ISRO’s human Space flight programme, for which Russia is a key supplier and partner. A critical question to ask may be whether India-Russia collaboration on a joint space station serves as a sort of counterbalance to Russia-China collaboration on ILRS to give Moscow some leverage over Beijing.
However, the possibility of this strategy backfiring and causing rifts in existing co-operation between Moscow, China and India, as well as Washington, can also materialise, thereby pushing all involved towards pursuing unilateral goals and missions in space.
In another scenario, a parallel alignment between Moscow and India for space co-operation can aggravate Beijing’s anxieties. Any India-Russia high-tech co-operation in orbit roughly on par with their own early warning system collaboration with Russia will deteriorate China’s own perceived place in the world, dealing a blow to Chinese morale. A less likely but possible source of Beijing’s anxiety can also be the prospect of India indirectly absorbing ideas from Chinese Intellectual Property (IP) in space systems via co-operation with Moscow.
India has several options for its approach to its envisioned space station, including a unilateral approach, a bilateral approach, or a multilateral approach with either the US or Russia. India can also keep the door open for collaboration with other space faring nations too by negotiating crew training missions on-board the ISS across modules owned by different international partners.
However, should India adhere to the unrealistic goal of launching the entire programme itself with little to no foreign co-operation, it stands to reason that the road to success will not be easy or quick. With the precedent of co-operation on many high-tech projects like the BRAHMOS cruise missile and the Gaganyan Human Space Flight mission, India can look towards Russia for assistance. India can provide the necessary funding for implementing key technologies and Russia can supply the “know-how”.
However, the partnership out of which the aforementioned Indian space station emerges shouldn’t be a vendor-client deal between ISRO and Russian state space subsidiary Glavkosmos but rather a strategic partnership between ROSCOSMOS and ISRO.
India’s strategic rival China has already made advances in maintaining a sustained human presence in orbit and the learning curve for India appears steep. Only collaboration with Russia can give India a leg up and may perhaps be the only path for India to catch up to China in any meaningful way.