Pakistan’s bid and the politics of space 

Pakistan’s bid and the politics of space 

Short Url

As the first images of the moon captured by Pakistan’s first lunar mission, ICUBE-Qamar rolled in on Monday, it’s clear the country is making some headway in the space club. Earlier this month, Pakistan launched the cube satellite into the lunar orbit aboard China’s Chang’E-6 Mission. Four days later, the satellite successfully entered the moon’s orbit. Launched in the lower-earth orbit, the satellite is solely proposed for research and development purposes and aims to obtain imaging of the lunar surface as well as gather lunar magnetic field data.

While ICUBE-Q is an important feat for Pakistan and its success could potentially lead to bigger space missions, such as landing on the moon, the launch is also indicative of Pakistan’s missing space policy. ICUBE-Q was a research proposal from Institute of Space technology (IST), space-university in Pakistan. IST’s team designed and developed the program with China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University and SUPARCO, Pakistan’s national space agency. It must be noted that the satellite was not a home-grown initiative from Pakistan’s space agencies but an onboard to a Chinese lunar mission. But this limited thinking around space technology and development is justified by the country’s political and economic crisis. 

The ongoing political turmoil picked up heat closer to the elections in February 2024 when former Prime Minister Imran Khan was disqualified from running for office and jailed for three cases a week before elections. The unpredictability of politics has caused serious fluctuations for the country’s economy as it faces record high inflation. For an economically strangled Islamabad, political stability and traditional security matters rightfully remain immediate concerns, while space and emerging technologies take a backseat. 

In the race to space, ICUBE-Q cannot be detached from geopolitics. In fact, the geopolitical rivalry in South Asia has now gone to space. 

- Kashoon Leeza

In the race to space, ICUBE-Q cannot be detached from geopolitics. In fact, the geopolitical rivalry in South Asia has now gone to space. Pakistan’s cube satellite onboard China’s mission speaks of an ever growing Pakistan-China cooperation in space research and development. This is not the first time China has carried Pakistan to space. In 2018, China sent two of Pakistan’s satellites into orbit via its Long March-2C carrier rocket. China and Pakistan signed a space cooperation agreement in 2019 on the sidelines of China’s Belt and Road Summit. Through this agreement, both countries aim to conduct peaceful exploration and technological experiments in space. Chang’e 6 will make China the first country to retrieve samples from the moon’s largely unexplored South Pole. Pakistan’s space community aspires to be part of the explorations through this cooperation. 

In the aftermath of ICUBE-Q’s successful launch, analysts have made speculations of a potential India-Pakistan space race. It must be noted that ICUBE-Q comes after India’s launch of spacecraft— Chandrayaan-3— on the moon’s south polar region. Similarly, the China-Pakistan space cooperation agreement was announced closer to India’s successful Anti-Satellite Missile Test (ASAT) in 2019. Previously, India and Pakistan have engaged in tit-for-tat defense postures such as the infamous Pulwama-Balakot strikes. Between India and Pakistan, any development in emerging tech— which could potentially disrupt the status-quo and de-stabilize the strategic balance— is perceived by the other as a threat. Thus, space could be the next possible domain. 

Meanwhile, India’s space program trajectory is inspired by competition with China. The retired ISRO, India’s space agency chairman, admitted that India’s premise for going to Mars was to get ahead of China. India’s ASAT testing made it the fourth country after the US, Russia and China, to possess the strategic military capability in space. Similarly, India’s inclusion in the Artemis Accords was geopolitically motivated by China and Russia International Lunar Research Station agreement. Given the US military is heavily reliant on space capabilities, the development of ASAT weapons is critically important for the great power competition. 

Given the dynamics of geopolitics around space, it is pertinent for Pakistan to articulate its space policy, as political instability restricts the country’s growth to traditional security only. This is why there is limited discussion on space missions and ASAT testing in Islamabad. In the long run, Pakistan must consider channelizing dedicated resources to develop its space capabilities and establish its position in the space domain. 

- Kashoon Leeza is a policy analyst focused on tech and foreign policy in the South Asia region. She has previously worked with the government of Pakistan on matters of national security and foreign policy. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view