One month after an aging Indian Air Force jet was shot down in a dogfight with neighboring Pakistan, New Delhi has demonstrated a new weapons capability aimed at another, more powerful geopolitical rival: China.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used a national address to announce India had “established itself as a space power” by sending an indigenously designed ballistic-missile interceptor up 300 kilometers (190 miles) to destroy a satellite orbiting the Earth. The move — with political overtones just weeks ahead of a national election — sends a stark message to India’s nuclear-armed rivals, China and Pakistan, and changes Asia’s strategic calculus by proving India has the ability to knock out enemy satellites.
The development suggests India, which has long struggled with a lethargic military-procurement process and outdated defense technology, is getting closer to sitting alongside China, Russia and the U.S. as countries with the ability to disrupt enemy communications networks. The move comes weeks after India sparred with arch-foe Pakistan in the skies over Kashmir, a disputed border region where China also has territorial claims.
“Essentially, India is saying that we are a strong and capable military power — it’s not specific to any one country, but it is a message to all of India’s adversaries,” said Ajey Lele, a retired Indian Air Force group captain who’s now a senior fellow at the Ministry of Defence-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. “If somebody wants to do something to our satellites, we have the capability to do this to your satellites.”
India’s foreign ministry said in a statement that New Delhi wasn’t engaging in an arms race, but asserted that “with this test, India joins an exclusive group of space-faring nations consisting of USA, Russia and China.” Beijing’s growing space capability — conducting a similar anti-satellite test 12 years ago — has helped drive U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to build a “space force.”
“China is clearly part of the calculation,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the nuclear and space policy initiative at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation, adding that a similar test by China in 2007 served as “a big wake-up call” to India. “It has a deterrence effect, and that is clearly a China-driven point that India wants to convey.”
India’s relations with China, which have been strained by a series of long-simmering border disputes, have grown more tense as the two rising powers jockey for influence across the region. Beijing has forged ever-closer military and economic ties with Islamabad, spurring New Delhi to improve relations with Washington.
China enjoys a big lead over its less-developed neighbor, becoming in January the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. Its space program is run by the military and Chinese President Xi Jinping established a Strategic Support Force in 2015 to develop greater capabilities.
John Blaxland, head of the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University, said the anti-satellite test nonetheless signaled that India was “stepping up to the plate” in space. “India’s neighbors will have to think twice before upping the ante in any future space clash, particularly once this capability matures,” Blaxland said.
The launch also delivers a message closer to home, especially after India’s recent Kashmir flare-up, which included Pakistan’s capture and release of a Indian pilot. Militarily, the move could be seen as demonstrating India’s ability to shoot down ballistic missiles from its rivals.
Politically, it showcases India’s industrial and military strength just weeks ahead a pivotal general election that could decide Modi’s political fate. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has leaned heavily on the prime minister’s authorization of Indian air strikes against Pakistan during recent appearances on the campaign trail.
“It gives Modi an opportunity to boast of his country’s technological prowess just before the elections,” said Sam Roggeveen, director of the International Security Program at Lowy Institute in Sydney.