Space diplomacy involves leveraging space science and technology to achieve foreign policy goals and strengthen national space capabilities. Objectives of space programs, particularly in the Global South, include remote sensing technology for agriculture, water resource management, weather forecasting, telecommunications, telemedicine, and education. Due to space’s dual-use and strategic nature, cooperation regarding space tends to rely on diplomacy, international treaties, and other agreements to support peaceful purposes.
More than seventy countries currently have space agencies, commissions, or offices, and control satellites orbiting Earth.1 More than half of these countries are in the Global South.2 However, only fourteen countries and the European Space Agency (ESA) have launch capabilities3 and only six have full launch capabilities, which means they can recover any rockets they send to space. Regional agencies (e.g., the ESA) and multilateral regulatory bodies (e.g., the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) and the UN Office of Outer Space (UNOOSA)) play crucial roles in developing space technologies and setting rules and norms to govern them.
Countries in the Global South are trying to build their capabilities through space agencies, bilateral and multilateral arrangements, and regional space bodies such as the African Space Agency (ASA) and the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (ALCE).4 Some of the major science diplomacy initiatives are listed in Table 1.
Table 1: Major space diplomacy initiatives in the Global South
Latin America and the Caribbean
South- East Asia
Space diplomacy challenges in the Global South
Though there is an increasing interest across the Global South in developing space capabilities and technology, the many obstacles point to the need for a more focused approach to space diplomacy.
Difference in priorities and limited understanding complementarities: There are sizable differences in priorities, challenges, strengths, and requirements among different nations in the Global South. Space programs are not always compatible, which often results in competition for space resources. Further, the complementarities of these strengths and requirements are not well understood, negatively impacting the development of partnerships that would benefit all parties. This limited understanding may be due to lack of political will or the result of promoting and pursuing space diplomacy to develop better relations as part of a larger geopolitical calculus.
Overdependence on top space agencies: Development of space technology is investment intensive and risk prone, which results in overdependence on top space agencies (based in the Global North). Countries in the Global South often lack the human and financial resources to invest in space endeavors. Hence, in contexts of budgetary limitations and political, economic, and social crises, other sectors are given priority over space diplomacy. For example, even countries with relatively mature space programs like Mexico and Pakistan still rely on developed countries for services based on space technology.23 This overdependence on advanced countries could infringe upon the tech sovereignty of developing countries. Furthermore, it inherently limits the influence of developing countries in negotiations over space-based treaties, norms, standards, and regulations.
Increasing competition from private industry: The landscape of space activities is changing rapidly with the entry of private industry. The private sector can sometimes offer satellite-related services and launch vehicles more cheaply than state-owned space agencies, which can preempt investment in national space programs. This goes hand in hand with the large revenues generated by the space industry.24 In addition, commercial spaceflight has become a promising niche for private industry, with prominent players like SpaceX, Blue Horizon, and Virgin Galactic investing billions of dollars.25
Lack of strategic approach for space diplomacy: Several countries in the Global South lack a long-term strategy or policy framework for leveraging space diplomacy to help achieve their strategic and socio-economic goals. Instead, space cooperation is often ad hoc and does not always incorporate a country’s long-term strategic interests.
Steps to further space diplomacy in the Global South
Several examples of science diplomacy in the Global South are highlighted in Table 1. For instance, in 2021, Brazil used India’s launch capabilities for its first satellite, the Amazonia-1. As well, the South Asian Satellite serves as a model for space diplomacy and regional integration, through co-development of satellites and sharing space-based services.
To initiate space diplomacy among space agencies, complementarities and convergence of interests should be identified by joint committees and working groups. Moreover, expanding exchange programs (for space scientists, engineers, and policymakers) would help develop strong bonds within and among space science communities. Loaning space facilities and equipment should be encouraged as this would help create interoperable systems while facilitating cross-learning. The next step in this direction would be to develop resource-sharing agreements on satellite data and research, training, and launch facilities. Training modules for satellite development and satellite data management can be shared bilaterally and/or multilaterally.
A platform to catalog requirements, challenges, resources, and facilities across the Global South is needed. Space agencies in the Global South can collectively initiate this in global forums, such as the UNOOSA or UN Office for South-South Cooperation. More outreach is necessary to inform all stakeholders, especially government officials, space administrators, technologists, and diplomats, about the opportunities (and challenges) of space diplomacy.
International forums like the G-20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) could facilitate North-South space cooperation and help create regulations for the peaceful sharing of space resources. In particular, BRICS could become a suitable forum for several emerging economies’ demands and needs in the space technology realm. ASEAN is another example of North-South and South-South space cooperation; many of its initiatives are supported through mechanisms such as joint committees and working groups like the ASEAN Dialogue Partners, which include the United States, China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Russia. Further, the network of UN-affiliated regional centers for space science and technology education should be expanded and better integrated.
The entry of new state and non-state actors could imply lower costs and greater opportunities for cooperation. But it also necessitates a new set of regulations on space, with particular attention to competition, commercialization, debris, and militarization. Several countries have signed the Artemis Accords, which aim to regulate commercialization of space.26 Such initiatives could be viewed as neocolonial and discriminatory in the Global South, where an increasing number of developing countries are entering the space race to reduce the space gap (understood as “a capabilities gap formed between developed states that are capable of accessing the technological opportunities gained through space-faring and those developing states that either still have no access to those technologies or must pay exorbitant amounts of money to foreign governments for basic levels of access ”)27 by trying to enhance their own capabilities. As well, there is a new militarization of space, which has spurred competition not only between the United States and China, but also among Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, and other countries. How countries in the Global South calibrate their space strategies while managing the changing dynamics of militarization in this new space age and with novel space technologies will be a major challenge.
Given its emerging space-related interests and capabilities, the Global South should play a role in setting new space rules, regulations, and norms. In this context, space diplomacy should constitute a key instrument for Global South countries seeking to peacefully expand their capabilities in space technologies.
The authors connected at the Warsaw Science Diplomacy School and decided to explore some of the shared challenges faced by countries in the Global South in science diplomacy. Space diplomacy was chosen for this study as there is a clear difference in goals, priorities and capabilities between Global North and Global South in space technology.
- Brian Hart, “Bad Idea: Focusing International Space Cooperation on Established Space Powers,” Defense 360, December 11, 2020, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-focusing-international-space-cooper....
- We define this group according to UN classifications (see https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/global-south-countries), with the exception of China, whose economic and military capacities now greatly surpassing those of other Global South countries.
- Australia, Brazil, France, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, and the United States.
- See UNOOSA, “Regional Centres for Space Science and Technology Education (affiliated to the United Nations),” www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/psa/regional-centres/index.html.
- For more details on the IIRS, see www.iirs.gov.in; for more details on CSSTEAP, see www.cssteap.org.
- Goverment of India, “UNispace Nanosatellite Assembly & Training by ISRO (UNNATI),” Department of Space, ISRO, www.isro.gov.in/UNNATI.html.
- Chetham Kumar, “Space Diplomacy: India Building Ground Station for ASEAN Countries in Vietnam,” The Times of India, July 2, 2021, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/space-diplomacy-india-building.... This facility will be linked with a ground station in Biakin, Indonesia and a remote sensing center that India has built in Myanmar. See also Shivangi Dikshit, “India’s Space Diplomacy: Building Space Station in Vietnam for ASEAN,” Center for Land Warfare Studies, August 10, 2021, www.claws.in/indias-space-diplomacy-building-space-station-in-vietnam-fo....
- K. V. Venkatasubramanian, “South Asian Satellite to boost regional communication,” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, May 7, 2017, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/printrelease.aspx?relid=161611.
- Pakistan’s national space agency, Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) was established in 1961; see www.suparco.gov.pk.
- Gulraiz Iqbal, “The Fall and Rise of Pakistan’s Space Ambitions," South Asian Voices, September 11, 2020, https://southasianvoices.org/the-fall-and-rise-of-pakistans-space-ambitions.
- Abu Sufian Shamrat, “Bangladesh Joins the Space Club with Bangabandhu-1 Launch, But Economic Challenges Could be a Hurdle,” Scroll, July 17, 2018, https://scroll.in/article/886419/bangladesh-joins-the-space-club-with-ba....
- Government of India, “Cabinet Apprised of MoU Between India and Bangladesh on Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space,” Press Information Bureau, May 24, 2017, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=162105.
- NepaliSat-1 and Raavana-1, respectively; see Rajeswari Pillai Ragajopalan, “The Importance of Nepal’s First Satellite Launch,” The Diplomat, April 26, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/the-importance-of-nepals-first-satellite....
- Andrés Pienizzio, 2020, “La Agencia Latinoamericana y Caribeña del Espacio (ALCE): ¿El camino hacia la integración espacial?”, Boletín Informativo del Instituto de Relaciones Internacionales 3, no. 11 (January 2021).
- Suhasini Haidar, “Amazonia-1 Satellite Launch High Point in Space Ties, say India, Brazil,” The Hindu News, February 28, 2021, www.thehindu.com/news/national/satellite-launch-high-point-in-space-ties....
- It conducts “exploration activities, research, space technology, and its applications, to contribute to and strengthen the integral and sustainable development of the region’s space environment, for the benefit of the Latin American and Caribbean population.” It also seeks to develop satellite technology and promote the Space 2030 Agenda throughout the region. Argentine Ministry of Foreign Relations, “La Argentina Firmó el Convenio Constitutivo de la Agencia Latinoamericana y Caribeña del Espacio (ALCE),” September 18, 2021, www.cancilleria.gob.ar/es/actualidad/noticias/la-argentina-firmo-el-conv....
- See National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences (NARSS), “NARSS Cooperations,” 2022, www.narss.sci.eg/cooperations.
- With the UK, China, Algeria, Turkey, Thailand, and Vietnam. See UNOOSA: UN Spider Knowledge Portal, NigeriaSat-1, www.un-spider.org/node/9055.
- With South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, and Kenya. See EO Portal Directory: N2 (NigeriaSat-2), https://directory.eoportal.org/web/eoportal/satellite-missions/n/nigeria....
- “Statute of the African Space Agency,” January 29, 2018, https://au.int/sites/default/files/treaties/36198-treaty-statute_african....
- Vietnam National Space Center (VNSC), “International Cooperation,” 2022, https://vnsc.org.vn/en/activities/international-cooperation.
- ASTNET, “Sub-Committee on Space Technology and Applications (SCOSA),” 2022, https://astnet.asean.org/sub-committee-on-space-technology-and-applicati....
- Gulraiz Iqbal, “The Fall and Rise of Pakistan’s Space Ambitions,” South Asian Voices, September 11, 2020, https://southasianvoices.org/the-fall-and-rise-of-pakistans-space-ambiti... Alicia Arizpe, “Mexico’s Space Sector Ready for Takeoff,” Mexico Business News, February 26, 2021, https://mexicobusiness.news/aerospace/news/mexicos-space-sector-ready-ta....
- According to the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), in 2020, revenues of the global satellite industry amounted to $271 billion and were concentrated in two categories: satellite services ($117 billion, or 44% of total revenues) and ground equipment ($135 billion, or 50% of total revenues). SIA, “Top Level Global Satellite Industry Findings,” 2021, https://sia.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/SSIR21-Executive-Summary-2-Pa....
- Matthew Weinzierl and Mehak Sarang, “The Commercial Space Age is Here,” Harvard Business Review, February 12, 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/02/the-commercial-space-age-is-here.
- See Susmita Mohanty, “Artemis Accords: a step toward space mining and colonisation?”, Friends of Europe, December 4, 2020, www.friendsofeurope.org/insights/artemis-accords-a-step-toward-space-min... NASA, “The Artemis Accords: Principles for Cooperation in the Civil Exploration and the use of the Moon, Mars, Comets and Asteroids for Peaceful Purposes,” October 13, 2020, www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis-accords/img/Artemis-Accords-signed-13Oct20....
- See Tyler Way, “The Space Gap, Access to Technology, and the Perpetuation of Poverty,” International Research Scape Journal, June 12, 2018, https://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1064&context=irj