Space diplomacy changes South Asia’s orbit

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

SattelliteThe Indian prime minister has termed the South Asian satellite as his country’s ‘invaluable gift’ of friendship to the neighbours. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has said, “I am certain that the launching of this satellite will change the scenario of South Asian countries.” She also said that the launch of the satellite took ties of cooperation between Bangladesh and India beyond land, sea and the air, up to the heights of outer space.

The satellite is an ‘invaluable gift’ for sure. India has spent Rs 4.5billion, that is around US$70 million, on this satellite. The Bangabandhu Satellite being made by Bangladesh costs around five times more than this (Tk 30 billion or US$ 375 million). So any comparison between the twoin financial terms does not have much significance. The significance of this satellite lies elsewhere. This was clear in prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s words. She said it had changed the scenario of South Asia and taken cooperation between Bangladesh and India to new heights.

How has the scenario changed? This South Asian satellite of India was supposed to have been the SAARC satellite. This had been decided upon in 2014 at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu. India says that Pakistan has refused to be part of this satellite. However, quoting Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesperson Nafis Zakaria, CNN reports that Pakistan was initially interested, but as India was not willing to do it on the basis of collaboration, it could not be done under the SAARC umbrella. Quoting Nafis Zakaria reported its registration, however, with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was to be done as an 'SAARC Satellite'. Besides,  India’s Economic Times (5 May 2017; after the launch of the satellite) has reported that efforts were on to reach an understanding with Afghanistan in this regard, which means another member of SAARC is yet to be on board.

It is common knowledge that if any one member state pulls out from the implementation of a decision taken at a SAARC summit, or objects to it, the decision remains dormant. In fact, that is why many times SAARC summits could not even be held. When asked, former foreign secretary Hemayetuddin said, that was how it should be, if no changes have been brought to the SAARC charter. The charter on the SAARC Secretariat's website states in Article X that, “Decisions at all levels shall be taken on the basis of unanimity.”

Reality, however, is completely another matter. On 20 March this year, the Bangladesh cabinet first approved the decision that Bangladesh would take part in the Indian South Asia satellite. Three days later, on 23 March, the chairman of Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) signed an agreement in Dhaka with the Indian high commissioner Harsh Vardhan Shringla. Subsequently, six other countries signed the agreement based on bilateral discussions with India. Have these seven countries created a new forum? No, they haven’t, but can this move be taken as a milestone towards the death of SAARC?

Indian diplomatic and security analysts see this satellite launching as India’s space diplomacy. CNN says that by pushing Pakistan to one side, India will now more firmly establish itself as the Big Brother of the neighbourhood.

Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of India’s Observer Research Foundation, Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan has told CNN that, "India has done satellite launches for countries commercially but never utilized them as a foreign policy tool. Space is no more just a science and technology domain -- it is being seen from a strategic and foreign policy perspective."

Experts are of the opinion that the main motive behind this satellite is to curb China’s influence in the region. China launched separate communication technologysatellites with Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Rajagopalan says, "Space has increasingly become a domain of competition between India and China."

It is important to apprise what this satellite has given us, outside of the geo-political aspects. Experts opine that there is no possibility of immediate benefits for us from this satellite. BBC’s science writer Pallav Bagla writes that this satellite of India has no parallels because the information and data that the countries will receive from this are normally provided by commercial satellites. This new satellite will offer a range of services including telecommunications and broadcasts, disaster management and weather forecasting. 

India will provide all the participating countries one transponder each and technical assistance. The transponder will require an Earth station. Our existing Earth stations are not adequate for this. A new one will be required. Upon enquiries BTRC chairman Shahjahan Mahmud told ProthomAlo, “The Earth station being constructed in Gazipur for the Bangabandhu satellite will take another five months or so to complete.So, we cannot immediately avail the services of the Indian South Asia satellite.”

So until October when the station is complete, we will have to depend on India if we want any data  from the satellite. Shahjahan Mahmud told the Prothom Alo with certainty that the Bangabandhu satellite would be launched in November or December. So in that sense there is very little to benefit from this gift.

Experts also say this satellite can be used to gather all sorts of data about our natural resource reserves to forecasting natural disasters. That means India will be have ability to gather a lot of information about us even before we can ourselves. Nothing will remain unknown to India. Even if we have a separate transponder, the control will be with India. We will have no secret or secure channel. The BTRC chairman agreed that this is so.

It is said that the TV channels can use this satellite for broadcasting. Will that be free of cost? Shahjahan Mahmud has said that thishasn’t been ascertained as yet. He said the Bangabandhu satellite would have 12 transponders which would be able provide much more services to the TV channels.

So if our own satellite is going up into space this year, what benefit is there from India’s South Asia satellite? Will that not overshadow the Bangabandhu satellite? Shahjahan Mahmud said, “The Indian satellite can act as a supplement to our Bangabandhu satellite.”

While questions remain how far this Indian satellite will benefit its neighbours, it will certainly have a long-term impact on the diplomacy and geo-politics of the region. Space diplomacy has undoubtedly changed the South Asian scenario.

This report, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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