Book Review | Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality

 By Paarth Pande
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Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality By Gp Capt Ajay Lele (Retd.) 2013

The book ‘Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality’ is written by Group Captain Ajay Lele (Retd.) and published by Springer India. The main idea of the book revolves around the intricacies and dynamics of the emerging space powers in Asia. Focusing on India, China, and Japan as major space-faring nations along with growing powers like South Korea, Malaysia, and Israel, the book unearths the complex network of the advancement in space technology in Asia as well as the divergent interests in space involving the military forces. As the name suggests, another key area of observation is whether or not the investments made in space technology coincides with the socio-economic development plans of the countries or if a Space Race in Asia has already commenced.

The book is divided into four parts covering a wide array of factual and descriptive information. The first part covers the basic introduction of the book and related topics such as the concept of Asia, the development of technology in the continent, its relevance in the current world, and the key space-faring nations. When viewed from a geographical perspective, Asia is divided into East, South, South-East and West. Although Russia has a considerable area in the continent, the author explains that the country views itself as a western or European nation, aligning to their culture and ethnicity. Another important factor is Russia’s highly advanced space programme which cannot come under the bracket of other developing nations’ efforts in the space sector. Hence, it has been excluded from the Asian perspective in this book. Viewed primarily from a western-centric point of view, Asia is more than just a conglomeration of ‘primitive civilisations’ and represents much more. According to the author, the post-Cold War era witnessed a major change in the growth of the continent economically and strategically. The process of modernisation of Asia along with a change in strategic interests had made it possible for a few countries in the continent to compete with western powers and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Gp Capt Lele mentions that “The stride of Asia towards prosperity and development has become possible because of the opening of their economies, creation of a global market for their projects, engaging Western states in economic activities and creating Asian dependence, developing a science and technology base, making trained employable manpower available catering of both regional and global needs.”

With the gradual opening up of economies, technological advancement became an inevitable force in many nations, directly affecting their space programmes. This section goes on to elucidate the role of political factors involved in such scenarios. Political backing is as important as financial backing in the development of space programmes as they rely heavily on modern technologies. Although the main aim of such investments in the space sector is to gain economic prosperity, other pressing issues like overpopulation, climate change, and food/ resource scarcity are also being considered as space technology could prove to be very beneficial in these cases. The author explains that in today’s world, Asian states are divided into two broad categories with regards to space power; those who have satellite launch capabilities and others who are primarily satellite system holders. The former consists of nations like India, China, Japan, and to some extent, Israel and Iran whereas the latter consists of South Korea and Malaysia among other states.

The second part of the book covers the capabilities, investments, and space programmes of various Asian states. It starts with a brief history of West Asia and the growth in space programmes of its different nations. Key interests in space technology go back decades ago for countries like Iran and Israel who have a fairly sophisticated programme as compared to other West-Asian nations. This does not mean that those nations are far behind. For example, the author has stated that “UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi is an advanced city in the region in regard to its infrastructure facilities. Virgin Galactic, a space enterprise of the Virgin Group, is interested in building a spaceport in Abu Dhabi” and a few years later the process for the same picked up its pace. This section then goes on to list the capabilities and growth of other nations in Asia to further explain the rise in the space sector of not just the well-established nations but the developing and emerging ones as well.

In the third and fourth sections of the book, Gp Capt Lele focuses on the strategic implications of such technologies and the future of space powers in Asia. China seems to be rapidly developing its power in space over the years. Various influences in space exploration, like missions to the moon of the main three space-faring nations in Asia, seem to have a lot more in common than one would realise at the time. Such factors are not only scientifically adventurous but also hold greater implications in the field of International Relations. Remote-sensing and navigational satellites had started being used for military purposes and Anti-Satellite tests along with jamming technology raised fears about the possibility of weaponisation of space. In the end, the author mentions that “States are found using a blend of both soft power and hard power called a smart power strategy” and that the trends at the time only suggest a possible space race in Asia.

As the book was published in 2013, one can note that a lot of developments have taken place since that period. India’s ASAT test, Japan’s interest in its military unit for space, China’s rapidly evolving counter-space programme all solidify an imminent space race in Asia. The Tiangong space station, China’s latest endeavour in space, will be used for keeping humans around Earth’s Orbit for long periods of time. Such developments solidify the author’s claims that Asian nations are steadily catching up to the western powers. China’s successful manned mission and the Mars mission were conducted decades after the Soviet Union and the United States, yet technological advancements in countries like China, India and Japan have led to a significant shift in the dynamics of space-faring nations around the world. China’s ambitious plans of cislunar dominance is another example of a growing space race around the world. A report from the country’s ‘Science and Technology Daily’ mentioned that China wants to establish a “space economic zone” and that such a feat would lead to the generation of almost 10 trillion dollars per year for the nation by 2050. The profitability of this plan remains undetermined but the possibility of having earth-moon space infrastructure is bright. As for the parallelism between the current scenario and the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, only time will tell whether or not these strategic interests and investments translate into something of that magnitude.

‘Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality’ provides information on the Asian space programmes that can be used even to this day. The book adds to the limited number of literature available on such issues and contributes to a fresh Asian perspective in the domain of space that used to be dominated by the western viewpoint.