ET Analysis: India’s space shakti sends a signal to Chinese satellites
India’s ASAT test shows it has the option to target Chinese assets in Earth's low orbit.
There’s no doubt that the test is a signal to China on its willingness to raise its capabilities to counter Chinese space assets. The low-earth orbit where the Indian ASAT hit its target is essentially is in the under 2000 km zone. This is the area where most earth observation satellites operate. These include navigation satellites, spy satellites and others with military use.
In December 2018, China launched its first low-earth orbit satellite as part of the Hongyun project under which it intends to launch 156 such satellites by 2025. The purpose is to provide internet, navigation and communication services on a large scale to several countries, including Pakistan. India’s test shows it has the option to target Chinese assets. China’s plans for the low earth orbit satellites took off after it developed its own ASAT capabilities through a range of tests. It is understood to be busy stockpiling ASAT weapons as a deterrence despite US resistance.
Beijing also combined with Moscow in 2014 to float the ‘Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT)’ as an alternative to US-backed PAROS (Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space) in the UN Conference of Disarmament. But Washington opposed PPWT on the grounds that it excludes ASAT tests while proposing a ‘no-first placement initiative’ in outer space.
The US has long seen this as a diversionary tactic that has allowed China to conduct ASAT tests around the same time. It would be quite convenient at some point for China to agree to a ban on ASAT tests after having completed its requirement.
In other words, India could well be staring at a situation like in nuclear weapons, where the doors were shut on India after China got itself into the club. Later, China acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty while India struggled as a nuclear pariah state.
Any such regime would also leave China without any real challenge to launch low earth orbit satellites for commercial benefit. Like nuclear weapons, the technology for ASATs is available with many countries but the test is a ‘proof of concept’, which allows for advancement in creating a credible deterrent. The other important aspect of India’s test is abiding to a range of 300 km. This is the limit after which the Missile Technology Control Regime conditions begin to apply. India joined the MTCR last year while China is still not a member – a narrative of compliance.
It’s better that India can now be part of shaping a rules-based order on space weapons than not having to develop one when China would agree to tighten global rules against ASATs.