Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 April 2019

Space is a place of peaceful collaboration, not confrontation

India's prime minister Narendra Modi has exhibited his nation's military ambitions by blowing up an orbiting satellite

Indians watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi's televised address to the nation, at a shop in Jammu. EPA
Indians watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi's televised address to the nation, at a shop in Jammu. EPA

Elections, though a vital part of the democratic process, can sometimes bring about the most provocative behaviour. As Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s promises of economic growth and job creation have come up short, he appears to have embraced security as a key vote winner, ahead of nationwide polls on April 11.

His latest campaign ploy, “Main Bhi Chowkadir”, or “I am a watchman too”, which draws parallels between his role as a statesman with that of the nation’s many low-paid security guards, is designed to do just that. Having led an administration whose central platform is Hindu nationalism, Mr Modi has reinforced his credentials as a tough enforcer of security.

On Wednesday, India successfully tested an anti-satellite missile system, destroying its own low-orbit satellite. The next day, at an election rally in the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Modi told supporters that he has the courage to conduct surgical strikes on land, in the air and beyond – a reference to ground and air attacks on terrorist camps in Pakistan in 2016 and 2019 respectively, and Wednesday’s anti-satellite operation.

While Mr Modi insisted India has joined the space “super league”, opposition parties declared his actions as an electoral stunt. In addition to the profligacy of obliterating a costly satellite while presiding over a country where millions still live in poverty, these actions will have lasting repercussions.

A similar Chinese operation in 2007 created the largest ever orbital debris cloud, threatening other civilian and military satellites. The US military is reportedly now monitoring more than 250 pieces of wreckage from India’s recent test. That is why, in 2012, the then head of the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation said New Delhi had “all the building blocks” for such a weapon, but would not trial it.

There are also growing concerns about the militarisation of space. On a more philosophical level, the cosmos should be a place of friendship, where countries conduct valuable scientific research and unite for the good of mankind. As acting US defence secretary Patrick Shanahan said: “We all live in space, let’s not make it a mess.”

And some countries have ambitions that add to space exploration based on collaboration and international co-operation. The UAE will send its first astronaut into orbit this year after training in Russia, and launched a regional space collaboration programme this month involving 10 other Arab countries.

Behind the UAE’s bold leap into the universe is an understanding that interstellar wonders are communal. Mr Modi might find that his emphasis on security – and Wednesday’s missile launch – will improve his electoral fortunes. But there is a great issue at play here. Initiatives such as the International Space Station are beacons of co-operation, and Mr Modi would be wise to view space as an arena for tranquil and fraternal partnership, not confrontation.

Updated: March 28, 2019 06:49 PM

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