Originally Published 2011-07-18 00:00:00 Published on Jul 18, 2011
With the nuclear deal over, New Delhi and Washington need another big idea to power the bilateral relationship over the next several years. Space cooperation has the potential for being that next big idea.
US-India Strategic Dialogue: "Sky's No Limit" for Space
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be arriving in Delhi on Monday (July 18) for the second U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue. This strategic dialogue is crucial because there is an increasing concern that the U.S.-India partnership is beginning to lose its way. In Washington, there is significant disappointment on a number of issues including India’s nuclear liabilities bill, which for all practical purposes prevents the US nuclear industry from participating in India’s civilian nuclear sector; and the Indian decision to reject two American competitors from the Indian Air Force’s lucrative Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal. In Delhi, on the other hand, there is unhappiness at what is seen as American pressure for greater defence cooperation. These issues suggest that all is not well with US-India relations.

With the nuclear deal over, New Delhi and Washington need another big idea to power the relationship over the next several years. Without such a political initiative at the highest levels, U.S.-India relations threaten once again to wallow in bureaucratic inertia. Space cooperation has the potential for being that next big idea.

Nearly two years back, Karl F. Inderfurth, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Statefor South Asia Affairs, and C. Raja Mohan, prominent Indian foreign policy analyst, proposed in the pages of the Financial Times, London that space cooperation be kept at the heart of U.S.-India relations.

But though space cooperation has been an important item in the agenda between the two countries with almost all important bilateral documents proposing such cooperation, there has been little tangible movement on the issue. With the removal of most U.S. high-technology sanctions on Indian agencies, particularly on the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), there are few obstacles to serious cooperation in this area.

Nevertheless, bland sentiments about cooperation are unlikely to bear fruit without tangible proposals. To begin with, the two governments should consider establishing a US-India 21st Century Commercial Space Initiative or a Space Knowledge Initiative, along the lines of the US-India Agricultural Knowledge Initiative and the US-India Clean Energy Initiative.

Space cooperation between the two countries has even greater potential. Space cooperation is likely to be much more visible than either energy or agriculture cooperation. And unlike the US-India nuclear deal, space cooperation is likely to garner domestic support in both countries and is likely to be less controversial internationally.

India’s Minister of Commerce and Industry, Anand Sharma, recently highlighted the successful US-India partnership in the area of clean energy. The initiative was also a successful model of public-private sector partnership, with the two governments investing $25 million each and the private sector investing $50 million.

There are a number of areas of space cooperation that Washington and Delhi can explore. While space exploration purely for the sake of science might be important, it is likely to be more sustainable when linked to building a strategic industry. US and India should focus building the underlying knowledge and skill base which can address many areas: space access, in-space maneuver, space logistics, space infrastructure, on-orbit servicing, developing new markets such as space tourism, on-orbit construction and manufacture, terrestrial resource mapping, space resource and energy utilization, space traffic management and active debris mitigation, among others.

India-U.S. space cooperation also has a potential for being much more broad-based than other areas such as nuclear or defense cooperation. Space cooperation can generate stakeholders across a wide-spectrum, from the national space agencies on both sides (NASA and ISRO), education and science and technology departments to universities as well as private commercial enterprises in both countries. In fact, space cooperation has the potential to go far beyond entities like ISRO and catalyse new strategic industries in space.

The two countries can elevate three strategic objectives through the space cooperation initiative: first, it provides an exciting investment area of space in the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership for Indian and American leaders to work on, which addresses STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), jobs and high-tech cooperation in space. Second, it can catapult space-industrialisation and commercial space from the edge of the Indian and American national space paradigm to its forefront. Third, garner further resources for our own STEM in developing a future strategic industry.

Such an initiative could generate active participation and cooperation from public and private entities such as ANTRIX Corporation (India’s commercial wing of ISRO), the Chamber of Indian Industries (CII), Indo-U.S. S&T Fund, FICCI, USIBC, educational institutions such as IIT, IIM, IISc and on the U.S. side, FAA/SAT universities, USRA, NIRA, NASA/OCT Commercial, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Space Enterprise Institute among others.

U.S.-India partnership has never been short of promise, but realising the potential needs grand vision. Much of the progress over the last decade has been the result of precisely such a vision in the form of the nuclear deal. The need now is for another grand vision that would ensure that the progress made so far is not jeopardised.

I thank Lt. Col. Peter Garretson of the US Air Force for collaborating and formulating many of the ideas in this analysis.

(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. She was at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India, from 2003 to 2007)
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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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