“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” This quote from the UK’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill is relevant today. In these times of unpredictability, when all nation-states align with geopolitical power blocs, there is no doubt that the world is becoming more fragmented and is likely to be a playground for conflict.
Let’s rewind the clock to the 1950s when the world was degenerating into a battlefield between two superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers had weapons stockpiles to take the planet into a nuclear winter. Both superpowers created power blocs, which could have led to an unimaginable and catastrophic future without geopolitical detente. During the onset of this Cold War, India and Yugoslavia (after the 1948 Tito-Stalin split) pushed for the concept of non-alignment at the United Nations, which entails not being affiliated with either of the two power blocs. In 1961, 25 representative nations formally established the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which attempted to become a model for how a large section of the global polity does not attest to the constant bickering and turmoil created by geopolitical bipolarity. Fast-forward to 2023, global geopolitics has returned to the same bipolarities, with the new risk being the high likelihood of space, particularly Earth orbits, becoming a new battlefield.
During the height of the Cold War, the military’s needs and demands gave rise to the current space industry, which was essentially founded to meet those requirements. Gaining technological superiority led to the developing of cutting-edge propulsion, communication, and payload technologies. It expanded on how countries could use space for the public good.
This technological renaissance was only possible because the countries comprising the power blocs had invested heavily in technology development, exchanging ideas, and sharing resources. The initial phases of India’s space programme received assistance from the US and the Soviet Union. Through the delivery of sounding rockets, the United States and France were instrumental in establishing upper atmospheric research in India, which later became the foundational research done by ISRO. The Soviets later launched India’s first satellite, “Aryabhata,” and ensured that Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma could voyage into space. India has become a significant space power in recent years due to its early cooperation with other nations, the ISRO leadership, and decades of government support.
However, as the wheel of time moves relentlessly forward, we find ourselves in the same situation as we did in the past. There is an alarmingly high chance of a global nuclear war breaking out, with the two warring axes looking to space to position themselves militarily in space.
Although returning to the Moon will be a pinnacle of human achievement, the creation of the US-led Artemis Accords bloc and the Sino-Russian bloc ultimately lead to a situation where conflict is possible. Rather than countries ensuring the peaceful use of space for all, the blocs are likely to exacerbate a condition that can cause rival factions to do as they please without regard or respect for each other. The super exclusivity of the two blocs cannot help but impede global technological advancement and ensure our continuance as an interplanetary species. The blocs encourage limiting political principles and are far from an open and pragmatic approach to contestation.
India must use its strategic autonomy and technological expertise to pave the way for a third front, a non-aligned, pragmatic and inclusive front in space capable of promoting countries’ interests in the Global South and serving as a bridge between the two camps. India must look beyond the geopolitical smokescreen to build critical technologies through cooperation. The Global South looks to India to play a more constructive role in enabling all of the world’s space powers to cooperate more sustainably for the benefit of everyone everywhere. In these difficult times, we, India, can reflect on the past, learn from our and others’ mistakes, and refer to our civilisational wisdom for guidance in determining our following actions.
The author is a space economy and technology scholar. Views are personal.