Ties between India and the U.S., boosted in recent years by common geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific, have blossomed in outer space.
In June, India became the 27th nation to sign the Artemis Accords, an American-led set of principles for the 21st century aimed at peaceful exploration of and cooperation in space. While India’s accession is certainly cause for celebration, long-term space policy alignment is not guaranteed by signing nonbinding principles. In addition to further expansion, the U.S. should use the accords as an intergovernmental forum and a tool of public diplomacy, moving from signatures to long-term engagement, as we get closer to once again sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit.
The Trump administration launched the Artemis Accords in 2020 as part of NASA’s Artemis Program, aiming to build international consensus around norms for cooperation and peaceful exploration and use of the moon, Mars and beyond. The principles themselves are nonbinding, but their strength comes from the diversity of their signatories, cementing consensus in space. Beyond traditional U.S. space partners like Canada, Japan and Europe, the accords have been signed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and now India.
India’s signing of the accords was part of a broader set of agreements and partnerships announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Washington. NASA and ISRO, India’s space agency, are “developing a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation,” according to a White House fact sheet, as well as planning to send an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station by next year.
This is an exciting time for U.S.-India relations and only the beginning of partnerships in space between the world’s two largest democracies, especially as India’s space program has grown dramatically in recent years. India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission is en route to the moon, with a rendezvous set for Aug. 23, and its Gaganyaan crewed spacecraft is under development, with an expected 2025 debut in low-Earth orbit. India hopes to become just the fourth nation to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface and send humans into space. And the Indian commercial space sector is rapidly growing as well, reaching 140 space startups, up from just five in 2020.
While India’s accession is an accomplishment, a signature in support of nonbinding principles and membership in the Artemis Program do not forbid a country from signing other international space agreements or partnerships with competitors. The UAE, an Artemis signatory, signed a memorandum of understanding with China for its lunar rover to hitch a ride with China’s mission to the lunar south pole. That agreement was scuttled in response to U.S. tech export restrictions, but the Gulf nation has also signed agreements with China’s International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), a moon base China aims to construct with Russia in the 2030s after an initial crewed lunar landing before the end of this decade — and a global space coalition.
China, which has rejected the Artemis Accords, has pursued ILRS recruitment efforts with other countries that have begun bearing fruit — Pakistan and Venezuela have both signed ILRS agreements, and Malaysia is reportedly interested. While India is unlikely to sign on to an initiative or project led by China, it could do so with Russia, a long-time partner.
So ongoing and consistent space diplomacy, even with Artemis signatories, is critical, and Washington has recognized its importance. Accords nations held their first meeting last September on the sidelines of the International Astronautical Congress, but they did not produce any official announcement. But in May, the State Department released its Strategic Framework for Space Policy, a plan to coordinate and expand diplomatic efforts with space policy goals. Recommendations include using the accords “as a convening function to help shape discussion around the global governance of space exploration,” and launching two working groups focused on emerging partners and on deconfliction.
This plan is an excellent step forward, and the U.S. can and should do more. The Artemis Accords should be a 21st-century forum for intergovernmental discussion, debate and cooperation on space. This forum should also involve the commercial space sector, facilitating partnerships between companies and signatory countries. The organization could have an intercultural exchange component, connecting and inspiring the peoples across the globe, separated by thousands of miles of land and sea, but united by excitement about and accomplishment in space.
Space is the next frontier of diplomacy and geopolitics, but unlike the Indo-Pacific it is unfamiliar terrain without a global order or set of binding rules. That’s what makes broad and timely adoption of the Artemis Accords, and increasing their utilization, so critical. India has made a bet on this vision, marking a huge step toward global acceptance of these guiding principles, but the need for space diplomacy is only just beginning.
America should build on this momentum to further engage Artemis partners as a group by building the accords as a major new space forum, and expand public diplomacy efforts to bring together and inspire people across these nations.
Source : The Hill