As technological capabilities and innovation-led growth become important facets of economic and military power, countries have started integrating techno-diplomacy as a major piece in their broader international diplomacy edifice. Technological capabilities can serve both hard power (in military and economic terms), and soft power.
While this is not an entirely new phenomenon, and has been used especially with nuclear technologies and military hardware and weapon systems, the role of civilian technology solutions in diplomacy has taken on a sense of urgency in the last decade or so. Due to technological and diplomatic constraints, India has generally been unable to wield its technology as an effective tool of diplomacy. This is set to change with the launch of the South Asia satellite by ISRO on May 5.
The origins of the South Asia satellite date back to the 18th SAARC Summit, in 2014 in Nepal, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi put forward the idea of a common satellite serving the needs of all SAARC members. There were numerous delays, primarily as negotiations among the various countries of the South Asia region stalled over ownership and data access issues. With Pakistan officially opting out of the project by March 2016, the decks were cleared for an expedited launch.
The satellite has been designed and built by ISRO, with the full cost of the mission being borne by India. PM Modi stated that the satellite will be India’s “gift” to its neighbours. The satellite will carry 12 ku-band transponders allotted to the participating countries. Each country can use a dedicated transponder for its own use, which would primarily be communication and disaster management support. The satellite is similar to previous communication satellites designed and launched by ISRO, and technologically does not constitute a major breakthrough. However, diplomatically, the South Asia satellite is significant for three reasons.
First, it showcases India’s growing technological prowess. Along with previous missions such as Chandrayaan and the Mars Orbiter Mission, the South Asia satellite underscores the strength of Indian indigenous technological development. Though the satellite is not very challenging technologically, a two-year turnaround for building and deploying a satellite is impressive.
Second, that the satellite has been launched without any specific quid pro quo shows that India is willing to use its technological capabilities as a tool of diplomacy. India has begun realising that domestic technologies have now reached a level of maturity that allows India to confidently brandish its capabilities to other countries. It also serves as a marketing tool for future launches at a time when ISRO is building a strong niche for itself in the international satellite launch market.
Third, it reveals both India’s ambition and capability to create what can be termed “technological commons”. By “gifting” this satellite to its neighbours, India has created an open access resource that can be leveraged by the latter to address some of their critical domestic concerns. Building such commons is essential not only to address immediate problems but also spur research, innovation and economic growth in the region.
Technology is the calling card of our times. India must make a concerted effort to expand the range of technologies it can use as part of its diplomatic arsenal. India could also look at including biotechnology and green energy. Unfortunately, there has been a critical lag in the evolution of robust scientific and research institutions in these areas, particularly from a funding standpoint. The South Asia satellite is emblematic of a more confident and assertive India, but it is necessary to ensure that such actions are not one-off.
Reddy is researcher and Padmanabhan is fellow, Carnegie India