India’s recent efforts in space exploration closely mirror the country’s diplomatic push as an ambitious power on the rise.
Indian officials have been advocating in favor of a multipolar world order in which New Delhi is seen as indispensable to global solutions. In space exploration, as in many other fields, the message of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been clear: The world will be a fairer place if India takes on a leadership role, even as the world’s most populous nation works to meet its people’s basic needs.
That assertiveness on the world stage is a central campaign message for Mr. Modi, who is up for re-election for a third term early next year. He has frequently fused his image with that of India’s rise as an economic, diplomatic and technological power.
“Thanks to our scientists, India has a very rich history in the space sector,” Mr. Modi said after Chandrayaan-3’s launch to the moon last month. “This remarkable mission will carry the hopes and dreams of our nation.”
India aims to be only the fourth country to achieve a moon landing — after the United States, the Soviet Union and China — and the first to do so in the moon’s South Pole region.
Much of India’s foreign policy in recent decades has been shaped by a delicate balancing act between Washington and Moscow, as the country grapples with an increasingly aggressive China at its borders. The two countries’ militaries have been stuck in a standoff in the Himalayas for two years now, and the vulnerability to a threat from China is a major driving factor in India’s calculations.
The common frustration with Beijing has only increased American and Indian cooperation, including in space, where China is establishing itself in direct competition with the United States. Russia’s failed moon landing just days before India’s successful attempt was the latest indication of Moscow’s struggles as a space power.
On the day India is attempting its moon landing, Mr. Modi is in South Africa for a meeting of the group of nations known as BRICS. Much attention will be focused on whether Mr. Modi will sit down for talks on the summit’s sidelines with President Xi Jinping of China, which would be the first proper bilateral discussion between the two leaders since the deadly skirmishes between their militaries in 2020.
Bharat Karnad, an emeritus professor of national security studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said India’s cost-effective approach to space exploration was “making India the launcher of choice for many countries for their low Earth orbit communications satellites.”
But the potential success of Chandrayaan-3 comes at a particularly important moment in the country’s rise, Mr. Karnad said, and Mr. Modi can reap benefits in leaning into India’s scientific prowess to “more confidently assert Indian national interest on the world stage.”