India-Vietnam Space Cooperation: Looking for New Frontiers
The 21st century is witnessing rapid development in various parts of East and Southeast Asia. The developing states in the region are struggling to maintain balance between their social obligations and economic reforms. It is their belief that technology could act as a catalyst for successful implementation of their development strategies. During the last few years Vietnamese government has invested significant resources in the development of its science and technology base keeping in mind the long-term interests. Space technology is one such area identified by the Vietnamese government.
It would of interest to note that issues of space technology had been making inroads in Vietnam’s strategic thinking since 1980. The beginning was made by the UNDP’s projects to promote utilization of satellite data for survey purposes and particularly under the joint Soviet Union-Vietnam space flight cooperation. Interestingly, the first Asian in the space was a Vietnamese cosmonaut Pham Tuan (now retired Lieutenant General) who flew in July 1980 under the Soviet Interkosmos space exploration programme.
In 2006, the Vietnamese government announced the “Strategy for space technology research and applications until 2020” that lays down plans to develop communication and earth observation satellites. In Apr 2008, a 2.6-ton medium-sized satellite Vinasat-1 was put into geostationary orbit using rocket Ariane-5 launcher from French Guiana. It took nearly 13 years for the completion of this project which was approved by the government in 1995 with the focus on providing low cost communication services. The first satellite has a life span of 15 to 20 years and the contractor of the project is the US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
Vietnam also had difficulty in obtaining the geostationary orbit position. The Vietnamese satellite is located at longitude 132 degrees east which is also been used by Japan. They had to undergo intense negations since allowing the usage of slot at global level is governed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Vinasat-1 is a commercial communication satellite; however, the capability of this satellite is not been utilized fully because of the lack of clientele. In 2009 only 30% of its capability was used but slowly the situation is changing. The initial absence of customers could be mainly attributed to the overall economic slowdown of the market. From Vietnam’s point of view, the availability of such satellite is a boon because it would have to otherwise spend ‘almost 15 million US dollars annually to rent satellites of foreign countries as Russia, Australia and Thailand’.
Vietnam has plans to put in to orbit its second satellite and France is expected to provide the technology and official development assistance (ODA) for this project. This small satellite would be for natural resources development, environment study and disaster monitoring (VNREADSat-1). The satellite is planned to be ready by 2012.
The lack of rocket science base in Vietnam demands that it looks for partners. Japan is emerging as a major partner in the space arena. Few months ago, an ‘in principle agreement’ was reached between the two countries whereby Japan would provide development assistance to launch satellites. Japan is likely to offer 7 billion yen to develop and manufacture two earth observation satellites for monitoring natural disasters. Naturally, the orders for satellite manufacture can be expected to be given to Japanese companies and Japan is even proposing to launch one satellite. This is one of the biggest ODA plan for Japan and is expected to boost their space industry. Also, Japan would be helping construction of a space center in Vietnam and providing financing aid for training satellite engineers.
Vietnam’s increasing interests in the satellite field are presently tapped by states like Japan and France. Vietnam’s space development policy clearly suggests that there are opportunities for other actors too. For a state like India which has a highly developed space programme, it is time to look for new partners and markets. In fact, Vietnam’s interest in this area provides an ideal opportunity for India.
The Indo–Vietnam relations have a long history. In the recent past issues such as terrorism and trade have been in the forefront in their bilateral relationship. More than 35 years ago India granted MFN status to Vietnam. Vietnam advocates the importance of India for ASEAN and is also supportive of India’s quest for the permanent membership of UN Security Council. Keeping in mind the strategic importance of India-Vietnam relations, both partners could explore collaboration in space arena.
India could offer help to Vietnam in various domains of space technology including supply of satellites and launching services. India could also develop structures for satellite data sharing. Rocket science education is another area where India could offer help. Also, Vietnamese students engaged in space research could avail graduate programmes in aerospace engineering. Few joint programmes could also be planned and Vietnam’s scientists be engaged with India’s major projects like Moon mission etc to offer them an exposure in emerging areas of space science.
India and Vietnam could also consider creating a consortium with other states in the region to come together and develop a multilateral mechanism which allows them to put their views jointly with regards to space security. The issue of space security and imminent weaponisation of space demand an immediate attention particularly at the backdrop of anti satellite test (ASAT) carried out by China in 2007.
A Beijing led inter-governmental organization with full international legal status called Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) is operative in the region since 1992. States such as Pakistan, Iran, China, Thailand, Turkey, Indonesia etc are members of this organization. Interestingly states like Japan, India and Vietnam are not onboard. All such realities indicate that there is scope as well as need for Indo-Vietnam space cooperation.