India Takes U-Turn on ASAT Tests Undermining Consensus on Peaceful Use of Space

Diplomatic sources indicated that a mixed response is likely from the international community, with some concerns expressed about space debris.

New Delhi: After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India has successfully “shot down” a live satellite in a low orbit, the Ministry of External affairs has asserted that India’s position of opposing weaponization of outer space remain un-altered.

But India’s position on testing anti-satellite weapons has certainly changed.

In January 2007, China conducted its first anti-satellite missile test.

In a written reply to the Rajya Sabha on March 1, then external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee noted that after the test, “China has reiterated its commitment to the longstanding international consensus on peaceful uses of outer space”.

He then claimed that the international consensus “could be undermined by continuation of such testing or deployment of weapons in outer space”.

Mukherjee reiterated this position two weeks later in an answer to a starred question in the Lok Sabha on March 14, 2007.

He told the lower house of parliament that the ASAT test was part of discussions with Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing in February 2007. The Chinese foreign minister had travelled to New Delhi to take part in a trilateral summit with his counterparts from Russia and India. According to a briefing by then Indian ambassador to China, the ASAT test was brought up suo motu by the Chinese side.

The Chinese delegation asserted that the test was of “purely technological and scientific significance and not directed against any country”.

India told China that international consensus on peaceful uses of outer space was in danger of dissolving if there were “continuation” of anti-satellite tests.

Mukherjee added:

In response India’s principled opposition to the weaponisation of space was conveyed and it was underlined that it was essential to preserve the longstanding international consensus on peaceful uses of outer space. Government believe that this consensus could be undermined by continuation of such testing or deployment of weapons in outer space.

He noted that “security and safety of assets in outer space is today of crucial importance for global economic and social development.”

Mukherjee added that following the Chinese test, India had “called upon all states to redouble efforts to strengthen the international legal regime for the peaceful uses of outer space”. “Government will continue to be closely engaged with the multilateral effort towards keeping outer space free of weapons,” he added.

Earlier before the Mukherjee’s statement in parliament, he had made an indirect reference to the Chinese test at a seminar on aerospace power on February 4.

China had not acknowledged the ASAT test for twelve days, till January 23. Before that, US, Japan and Australia had already confirmed the test and expressed concern about its implication.

Just two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to answer a question on the Chinese test during their joint press conference on the eve of the Indian Republic Day in New Delhi.

Putin stated that Russia’s position was against weaponisation of space, but was careful not to condemn China. Rather, he pointed out that China was not the first country to conduct anti-satellite missile tests.

“As far as I am concerned, the first such test was conducted in the late 1980s. In addition to that, we can hear from military circles in United States that their plans to try to weaponise outer space. We should not let the genie out of the bottle,” said the Russian President.

Standing next to him, Singh said that India’s approach was “also similar” to Russia. “That we are not in favour of weaponization of outer space,” he added. But, he did not comment directly on the Chinese test

At a seminar on Aerospace power on February 4, Mukherjee alluded to the Chinese ASAT test when he stated that “recent developments” had shown that there was a “thin line between current defence related uses of space and its actual weaponization”.

He had earlier noted in his speech that satellites play “an important role in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, secure communication and delivering accurate firepower on the ground at large distances”.

While the focus on aerospace power is natural in today’s circumstances, it is in our common interest to preserve outer space as a sanctuary from weapons and guard it as the common, peaceful heritage of mankind,” added Mukherjee, even as he praised the “depth and diversity” of the Indian space programme.

Twelve years later, after India’s own ASAT test, New Delhi asserted it did not violate any international law and neither has it changed its position on the placement of weapons in outer space.

After the announcement on Wednesday afternoon, the MEA issued a note in the style of Frequently answered questions (FAQ). Out of the ten questions, three were related to queries on diplomatic and legal issues.

“India has no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space,” answered the MEA to the self-posed question number eight.

Noting that India’s stance on peaceful use of space remains unchanged, the document stated, “We are against the weaponization of Outer Space and support international efforts to reinforce the safety and security of space-based assets”.

Echoing familiar catchphrases, it reiterated that outer space is the “common heritage of humankind and it is the responsibility of all space-faring nations to preserve and promote the benefits flowing from advances made in space technology and its applications for all”.

According to diplomatic sources, Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale has been briefing select ambassadors to explain India’s justification following the test. However, sources added that it is “not an all-out” high-profile diplomatic campaign like the one after the Pulwama terror attack and Indian airstrikes on February 26.

While the foreign secretary is apparently briefing envoys of the P-5 countries, his colleagues were also apparently scheduled to meet representatives of other countries. As per sources, India actively reached out first to various countries and scheduled briefings over the week.

Diplomatic sources indicated that a mixed response is likely from the international community, with some concerns expressed about space debris.

So far, the only official response has been Pakistan, which described the Indian announcement as akin to “Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills”.

Sources said that Indian officials told their foreign interlocutors that too much should not be read into the timing of the test.

The ministry’s FAQs also reminded that India supports UNGA resolution 69/32 on No First Placement of Weapons on Outer Space. “We see the No First Placement of weapons in outer space as only an interim step and not a substitute for concluding substantive legal measures to ensure the prevention of an arms race in outer space, which should continue to be a priority for the international community,” it stated.

New Delhi, asserted the information note, continues to call for “substantive consideration” of the proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament.

While it has been on the agenda of the Geneva-based CD, the US has been consistently blocking negotiations for the treaty. An annual UNGA resolution for negotiating PAROS treaty is voted overwhelmingly by all countries ever year, with the US and Israel abstaining.

In 2008, China and Russia had presented a draft treaty on the “prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space, and the prevention of the threat or use of force in outer space” (PPWT). However, after opposition, China and Russia brought a revised text in 2014. India had been part of the group of countries who had welcomed the updated text as a “good basis for discussions towards adopting an international binding instrument”.

In February 2018, the CD had set up four subsidiary bodies, a number of which had the job of thrashing of Paros. A consensual report of Subsidiary body 3 was adopted in a round-about way as the CD could not agree on the final report. This year, the CD has not been able to commission subsidiary bodies yet.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) set up by the UN secretary general through a GA resolution in 2017 is meeting for the second time right now in March. The GGE is supposed to give a final report on finding a way to get a legally binding instrument on Paros at the end of its session on March 29.

India asserted on Wednesday that there had been no violation of the 1967 outer space treaty or any other agreement. “The Outer Space Treaty prohibits only weapons of mass destruction in outer space, not ordinary weapons”.

As per Article IV of the 1967 treaty, state parties are committed “not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” India ratified the agreement in 1982.

But the key loophole, as India hinted, is that the treaty remains silent about the role of conventional weapons and also the meaning of “peaceful purposes”.

The information note recalled that the India is already implementing provisions of several treaties that include “registering space objects with the UN register, prelaunch notifications, measures in harmony with the UN Space Mitigation Guidelines, participation in Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination (IADC) activities with regard to space debris management, undertaking SOPA (Space Object Proximity Awareness and COLA (Collision Avoidance) Analysis and numerous international cooperation activities, including hosting the UN affiliated Centre for Space and Science Technology Education in Asia and Pacific”.

Incidentally, India clams that there will be no space debris generated as test was conducted in the lower atmosphere. “Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks”.

The Ministry of External Affairs also asserted that the test was not directed at any country. “India’s space capabilities do not threaten any country and nor are they directed against anyone”.

However, the anti-satellite missile test “provides credible deterrence against threats to our growing space-based assets from long range missiles, and proliferation in the types and numbers of missiles”, it said.