Space Exploration and India’s Geoplotical Dilemma

Dhruv Singh Garcha & Krishna Ravishankar*

Keywords:    Artemis Accords – Delhi Declaration of Friendship – Geopolitics – International Lunar Research Station – Space Exploration

Given the rapid growth and advancement in technology, space exploration has moved up the ladder of many countries’ national priorities. With the geopolitical matrix unfolding even while exploring the realm of the cosmos, the American backed Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) project have been the most significant multilateral developments with respect to space governance. This article tries to navigate the path that India as an emerging space power should take which would be beneficial for her space ambitions, keeping in mind her geostrategic interests.

Who Owns Space?

Before looking into the Accord, it is crucial to understand the legalities behind space resource ownership. The chronology begins with the UNGA Declaration of 1963, which debarred claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies. Then came the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, that prohibited the placement of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the establishment of military bases in Space. Furthermore, it laid down minimum regulatory guidelines for resource explorative activities. It was followed by the Moon Agreement of 1979, which refined the regulations entailed in the 1967 treaty and provided for an efficient framework to restrict the exploitation of space resources. However, the letter of the treaties lacks clarity. Article 1 of the 1967 treaty describes outer space as the “province of all mankind.” On the other hand, Article 11 the 1979 agreement describes it as “common heritage of mankind.” This inconsistency has led to long-standing debates about the interpretation and implications of these phrases. The US has always asserted the 1967 treaty’s definition of outer space since it allows for private and state ownership over resources extracted from celestial bodies. Furthermore, it is silent on private ownership over the entire outer space itself, something the Accords are likely to take advantage of. The US’s assertion was further solidified through an executive order dated April 2020 which instructs the Secretary of State to “object to any attempt to treat the 1979 Moon Agreement as expressing customary international law.” This can be said to have acted as the bedrock for the Artemis Accords.

The Artemis Accord

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Artemis Accords encompass a series of bilateral agreements between the US and other states to establish a common vision via a practical set of principles and practices for enhancing the governance of civil exploration and using the outer space to advance the Artemis Program. It further envisages to land the first woman on the Moon by 2024 with participation of both international and commercial players.

The Accords require the nations to ensure that space missions are deployed for non-combat purpose, remain transparent in their plans and policies for space exploration, work towards interoperability of space agencies, make available emergency assistance in space, register Space objects as per the Registration Convention, share scientific data among other signatories, preserve outer space heritage and reduce space debris and ensure minimal waste generation.

The principles are intended to apply to civil space activities of each Signatory by taking appropriate measures such as mission planning and contractual mechanisms.

The Sino-Russian International Lunar Research Station Initiative

With Russia dismissing the Accords to be a tool for American hegemony, along with NASA’s ban from collaborating with China in 2011, the Roscosmos signed a partnership with China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) to develop an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) on the Moon or as Professor Velina Treschokva puts it, “A Dragon-Bear Space Coalition to counter the Eagle.”

In June 2021, the Chinese national space agency released a three-phase plan for the ISRL Project with phase 1 (from 2021-2025) which would collect data and validate “high-precision soft landing” for lunar missions. The second phase or the construction phase (from 2026-2035) would involve two stages with the initial stage involving joint missions, delivering cargo and collection of lunar samples and the second involving construction of lunar and in-orbit. In the third phase, beginning in 2036, crewed landings will begin. The two countries are actively inviting other nations as well, to collaborate and develop the facility.

The Sino-Russian space exploration alliance will certainly be a major rival for the Artemis initiative, considering Russia’s extensive expertise in space technology and China’s resources.

India’s Position with Respect to the Two Blocs

The two geopolitically opposite space exploration programmes have created new dilemmas for India’s lunar governance and ambitions since the decisions it takes will be based on its relations with the pioneers of these blocs.

To understand the complexity of India’s choice with respect to these two blocs, it is vital to look at India’s space collaboration with the blocs’ members, and their diplomatic relations. The reason for doing so is to provide an all-encompassing solution for the scenario since India’s decisions in this regard will inevitably affect its relations with all the countries involved.

India and the Artemis Accords

Lately, there has been an increased level of collaboration between India and the US’ space agencies. India’s first lunar space project, Chandrayaan-1 carried the Moon Minerology Mapping System developed by NASA.

ISRO and NASA are presently working on the NISAR project, which will launch in 2022 and plans to measure the causes and consequences of land surface changes using advanced radar imaging. The two countries have also decided to conclude an MoU on Space Situational Awareness (SSA), creating a framework to protect each other’s satellites from man-made or natural threats.

India’s close bilateral space collaboration with signatories like Japan in the LUPEX Project and Ukraine in the sphere of semi-cryogenic engines also provides a strong backing for India to join this initiative.

From a diplomatic angle, this initiative forms a natural link to the Quad’s Critical and Emerging Technologies Working Group since the US, Japan and Australia are already signatories of the Accords.

Given the recent privatization of space which allows private stakeholders to enter into space-based commercial ventures, the Accord would allow by allowing sharing of technology, access to global supply chains and improving economies of scale to upscale India’s entire business ecosystem, starting from the SMEs to the NewSpace start-up sector.

India and US’ bilateral relations in general have improved significantly as well, culminating into the 2015 Delhi Declaration of Friendship. The 2005 Defence Framework, bilateral security treaties like BECA and COMSCA, and a Joint Strategic Vision for the Indo-Pacific show the steady partnership between both the countries. Economically speaking, the bilateral trade in 2021 was roughly $145 billion, and the US was the 2nd largest FDI source of India.

India and ISRL

Russian assistance is visible from the inchoate stages of the Indian Space Program, be it the launch of India’s first satellite (Aryabhatta 1), or India’s first human spaceflight mission in 1984.  Moreover, Russia aided India with the provision of cryogenic rockets for its GSLV launchers and is presently training Indian astronauts for the Gaganyaan human spaceflight mission of 2022.

With a long diplomatic history of alliance, the Indo-USSR relationship is important for India’s defence and security needs as evident from the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation, 1971. Russia’s support for India’s Permanent UNSC seat, along with its close multilateral collaboration through fora like BRICS and RIC shape the trajectory of this relationship. The Indo-Russian defence partnership is again of vital significance since Russia is India’s largest biggest defence supplier, complemented by prominent military joint exercises. However, Russia’s closer proximity to China and India’s growing alliance with the USA has not augured well for further co-operation.

Coming to China, despite a shared sense of cultural heritage, Sino-Indian political relations have been turbulent, especially over the Line of Actual Control. Given the recent military skirmishes in Eastern Ladakh, the increased Indo-US co-operation and the growing tensions between Washington and Beijing, there have been impediments in deepening the relations. However, from an economic perspective, China is important for India with a bilateral trade of $125 billion in 2021 and more than $4 billion Chinese investments in Indian unicorns.

So, What Now?

Looking at India’s relations with other space powers, it is clear that joining either of these blocs could potentially sabotage India’s strategic diplomatic interests and space ambitions with the other. As of now, India has multiple ongoing collaborations with numerous space agencies across the globe. Therefore, India need not conceptually side with any of the space groupings but rather practice the doctrine of strategic autonomy and make pragmatic collaborations, giving it privileged manoeuvrability across geopolitical blocs.

* Pursuing BA/LLB (Hons.) from National Law University, Jodhpur.