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Pakistan-China Space Cooperation – OpEd

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Space cooperation between China and Pakistan dates back to over two decades. Pakistan’s first indigenously developed satellite Badar-1 was launched from China in 1992. The Badr-1 satellite was an indigenously developed satellite that weighed 115 lbs. China has played a significant role in modernizing Pakistan’s satellite program. In the year 1991 ‘SUPARCO’ (Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission) launched an experimental satellite ‘Badr’ and in the year 2001 launched another satellite ‘Badr B’. The satellite was initially planned to be launched from the US’ Launchpad but was eventually launched by the Chinese Launchpad. The program was decommissioned in the year 2012 as both the satellites had completed their lifespan. Moreover, the Badr program is now replaced by Pakistan’s Remote Sensing Program. The bilateral cooperation between the two countries in space has created new outlooks in the scientific and socioeconomic spheres. This has resulted in the enhancement of the historically cordial relations in the other fields as well. 

Space cooperation with China holds immense significance for Pakistan at the strategic level since SUPARCO works closely with key strategic organizations. In the contemporary international security environment, navigation systems through satellites are significant for guiding missile systems along with commercial and communication purposes. With such cooperation, it would become more feasible for Pakistan to further develop its Space Program. As per SUPARCO Vision 2040, Pakistan intends to build, launch and operate remote sensing, communication, and navigation satellites and develop their spin-off technologies and applications for socio-economic development and national security. Pakistan has also sought China’s assistance in the development of ‘PRSS’ (Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite). The ‘PRSS-1’ (Pakistan’s Remote Sensing Satellite-1), an optical and earth observation satellite was launched in space in 2018 through a Chinese facility. The purpose of remote sensing is to gather data through satellites in space that is to be used for meteorology, mapping, and urban planning. In this regard, the PRSS-1 would provide Belt and Road projects with remote sensing information in the region. Whereas according to the SUPARCO officials, work on two other satellites is also in progress. 

Along with PRSS-1, another indigenously developed satellite ‘Pakistan Technology Evaluation Satellite-IA’ was also launched from a Chinese vehicle back in July 2018. In the same year, SUPARCO bought a communication satellite from China that was already in orbit. It has been named as PakSat Multi-Satellite. The purpose of this satellite is to improve communication networks and internet connectivity all across the country specifically in the northern areas. In order to make up for the decades of stagnation, China has big plans to provide significant advantages to Pakistan’s space program. In this regard, the Chinese BieDou navigation system would prove to be an alternative for Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System, European Galileo systems, and GPS. Other than that BieDou satellites would also provide SAR capabilities that can allow the data analyst to improve the image accuracy.

To further enhance space cooperation, in 2019, a series of space exploration agreements were signed between Pakistan and China at the second ‘Belt and Road Forum’. One such agreement would likely pave the way for Pakistan to send its first ever astronaut to space. It would also provide a framework for space and science exploration and training of Pakistani astronauts along with the development of Sino-Pakistani space committees to oversee future joint ventures in space. Furthermore, China has also proposed to build the ‘Space Silk Road’ and convert CPEC into a three-dimensional project including land, water, and space. The space Silk Road would help in the navigation from aircrafts to submarines through China’s Biedou satellites to connect BRI countries. All such agreements show growing cooperation between ‘SUPARCO’ (Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission) and ‘CNSA’ (China National Space Administration). 

Summarizing it all, with Pakistan’s strategic rival India having a substantial presence in space and continuously enhancing its surveillance and situational awareness capabilities, Pakistan has left with no choice but to strengthen its space program. In order to meet its increasing demand in the military as well as civilian domains, Pakistan needs to work rigorously on its indigenous space program. In pursuit of this, Pakistan would require the latest technology and resources which are not available currently; hence Pakistan can overcome this gap in the space domain by expanding its cooperation with China. In this regard, various initiatives are already in progress between both countries. Furthermore, more communication and earth observation satellites would be launched by China for Pakistan. To further bridge the gap, there is a need for enhanced cooperation in the civilian spheres. Nevertheless, the space cooperation between the two countries in the present time is mutually beneficial and timely. China needs a market for its developing expertise in space and Pakistan needs assistance in developing its indigenous space program. This cooperation would further strengthen their robust relationship in the years to come.

*The writer is working as a Research Affiliate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.