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The A-SAT test restores the India-China strategic balance

India has work ahead to do in developing non-kinetic ASAT technologies that China too is pursuing, as well as ABM technologies

analysis Updated: Apr 04, 2019 18:31 IST
Kanwal Sibal
Kanwal Sibal
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announces the success of Mission Shakti, India’s anti-satellite missile capability, in New Delhi, March 27, 2019(PTI)

The Narendra Modi government’s decision to conduct a live anti-satellite (A-SAT) test was bold and timely. Bold because the political leadership overcame past hesitations and authorised the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to conduct it. While the decision was not in defiance of an established discriminatory international regime that circumscribed India strategically as was the decision in 1998 to go nuclear, taking a step that could feed into international concerns about militarisation of outer space required careful consideration.

One such consideration would have been the adverse international reaction to China’s A-SAT test in 2007 conducted at a height of 865 kilometres that produced substantial space debris, which interferes with existing and future space activities and therefore raises international concerns. We have acted more responsibly by conducting our test at a height of 300 kilometres to ensure that the debris generated will fall earthwards within weeks. Most significantly, international reaction to our test (barring Pakistan’s) has not been adverse including US political reaction. More than NASA’s debris-related technical concerns as a space organisation which have been credibly refuted by our space scientists, it is the American government’s reaction that matters. We rightly preferred a kinetic kill instead of “fly-by tests” and jamming to prove the precision of our capability and exclude any ambiguity.

Our test was timely. Unlike our nuclear tests, the international environment for us to take strategic steps to protect our security is more favourable, particularly because of increased strategic understandings with the US. While we have rightly said that our test was not directed against any country, in reality just as we developed nuclear weapon capability to principally deter China, the A-SAT capability also redresses the India-China strategic balance.

China’s strategic antagonism towards us is demonstrated by its cover to Pakistan on our core issue of terrorism by preventing Masood Azhar’s designation as a terrorist by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 1267 Committee. China is disdainful of India’s reaction to this and to its opposition to India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership. It remains unwilling to treat India as a political equal. China is also highly active diplomatically to thwart India’s moves to finally initiate text-based negotiations in the United Nations General Assembly on Security Council expansion. China’s bullying tactics against weaker countries as well as global concerns about its threatening cyber capabilities require the development of counters by India.

China is bristling at the US move to raise the Masood Azhar issue in the UNSC as its duplicitous position will be publicly exposed. China’s apologists in India, who make the bizarre argument that on this, as well as that of line of actual control (LAC) clarification and NSG membership, India should not have made a public push because these issues are not intrinsically important enough to turn them into a litmus test of our ties with China may have reason to be unhappy because India has not prevailed upon the US, France and the UK to desist from a move that would make us lose China’s goodwill unnecessarily.

If China takes an adverse position on Pakistani sponsored terrorism against India (it did not even condemn the 2008 Mumbai attacks), veto our NSG membership on specious grounds, reverse its position on LAC clarification after agreement in 1996, what should be the litmus test then? The Special Representatives mechanism has produced no result despite the confidentiality of discussions. The Chinese lobby in India, always ready to assume guilt towards China, goes as far as to argue that the US-India nuclear deal provoked a natural rebalancing by China towards Pakistan. How the 2013 Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are a consequence of the India-US nuclear deal and have nothing to do with China’s grand geopolitical Silk Road strategies spanning the globe as apart of its declared ambition to be at the centre of international governance by 2049 is difficult to comprehend. According to the “tributary thinking” of this lobby, India should defer to Chinese sensitivities and pursue its interests only to the point that China is not upset.

Finally, the A-SAT test was timely because negotiations on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space, though stalled because of differences between the US, Russia and China, could eventually get concluded. A-SAT technology is also closely linked to Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) technology, which makes PAROS negotiations more complex in security terms. India has work ahead to do in developing non-kinetic ASAT technologies that China too is pursuing, as well as ABM technologies. By conducting the A-SAT test, India has avoided repeating the folly of not conducting a nuclear weapon test in time to ensure that its nuclear weapon status was recognised under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It will now be a key player in drafting any international law on preventing an arms race in outer space.

As against this larger canvas, the fact that the A-SAT test came when general elections are due, and could possibly give some advantage to the ruling party, should be of secondary importance.

Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 04, 2019 18:30 IST