By the end of this month Tokyo and New Delhi will lay down the principles of co-operation between the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Several fields of activity will fall within the initiative, ranging from coastal protection and defence to environmental disaster monitoring and anti-terrorism.
The deal comes at a time when the two space agencies are coping with different challenges. ISRO is getting pictures of the moon sent by the Chandrayaan spacecraft (22 October launch pictured), a success much celebrated by new Delhi. By contrast, JAXA is sailing through rough waters, still unsure about its funding. What is more for the first time however the deal marks a departure for Japan which is now considering deployment of hitherto excluded space assets for national security.
The accord also calls for close co-operation in environmental disaster monitoring. Japan can currently count on a network of weather monitoring satellites across much of Asia whose range, according to experts, extends farther than what was originally agreed to by regional countries. So far this has not caused any protests but a new generation of surveillance satellites might not be so easily tolerated.
The existing satellite-based multinational weather and disaster management system depends upon signatories’ willingness to accept rapid surveillance satellites tasking. But it can also transcend simple weather information.
The ISRO-JAXA deal “could be seen by some as a sensitive undertaking with obvious dual use possibilities which Japan will attempt to handle with great care,” said Lance Gatling, head of Tokyo-based Gatling Associates, which closely monitors JAXA and the Japanese space program.
The ISR0-JAXA agreement has in fact a component about defence-related use of missile and satellite technology, including the possibility of jointly developing ballistic missile defence (BMD) technology like that of the United States from which only Japan now benefits.
The new system would involve developing and deploying a new generation of surveillance satellites to monitor disasters and security threats.
India in particular has never been shy about its intention to increase satellite surveillance of all Chinese military activities, especially along its border with China.
For this reason the ISR0-JAXA deal is also worrying China, the third major player in Asia’s rush to space and the region’s major military power.
Until now Japan had a space security agreement with Australia. But the Bush administration has signalled its support for closer Indian-Japanese co-operation to counter China. And this has triggered heightened concern in Beijing.