India’s Mars Mission: Is it an Attempt to Counter China’s Space Ambition?

The two giant neighbors and heavyweight players in Asia have the habit of hogging the limelight, every time they are at loggerheads over bilateral issues. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they get featured regularly in the spotlight section of leading dailies. They are also a personal favourite of the paparazzi.  If I am allowed to be little flippant, I would  say that India-China relation is akin to that of the Khans of Bollywood. They are big in their own ways and often out of sync with one another. This complex equation between the two nations has often stoked speculations in the past, and this time too it has made its presence felt.

As the world watched ISRO’s satellite launcher vanishing into the space within minutes of the launch of its Mars Mission, repercussions captured by the international media made for an enlightening read. American media was quick to assume that the successful launch of India’s Mars mission could be “a symbolic coup” against China (Ask Pakistan government or the Maldivian ex-president how it feels to be upstaged).  A reputed news channel tried to put this incident into larger context and pass this off as “intensifying space race” in Asia.

The reactions from the US became more intriguing as one of the eminent experts expressed how New Delhi sees Beijing’s recent accomplishments in space exploration as a threat to its status in Asia, and this mission is an attempt to leapfrog the competition. While US spelt concern over “dangerous ramifications”, other countries were somewhat skeptical about the amount of scientific gain this mission is likely to achieve.  Some tagged it as a ‘modest’ exploration with “relatively simple” instrumentation.

If we keep aside the dialogues pertaining to global space ambition, we will be left with the views from India and China to analyze. China sent across a dispassionate reaction maintaining a neutral tone. Chinese Foreign Ministry official was of the opinion that every nation has “the right to make peaceful exploration and use of outer space.” As if to add a caveat at the end of his statement, he made an appeal to the international community to “make joint efforts to ensure enduring peace and sustainable development of outer space”.  Refuting the allegations that China is apprehensive of India’s space programme, the official referred to the “mutual trust” between two nations and the relation of cooperation existing between them.

However, the official Chinese media spoke a different language. State-run news daily made a sharp criticism of India for spending so much money on Mars Mission despite having millions of poor people.  To further substantiate its criticism, the news daily went on to add that India’s ambitious goal is to have an advantage over China. India has tried to play down any scope of getting into space race with its neighbor. The statement from ISRO chief echoes the same sentiment as he posited that the “thrust of space science in India has always been people-centric.”

ISRO’s mission may not match the advanced exploration ambition of NASA but it is certainly more cost-effective. With the Mars mission costing Indian exchequer somewhere between $73 and $83 Million, it is almost one-sixth of the amount earmarked for NASA’s Mars mission. It is to be seen whether India can break the jinx of ‘failure at first attempt’.  As a layman, I would prefer to look at it this way. Even if India fails to join the elite club by achieving success at first go, it would be a great learning experience for the future expeditions.

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