A sense of unease permeates India-China relations despite protestations to the contrary by foreign office mandarins. Recent Chinese actions like unceasing border intrusions, reiteration of claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, singling India out for warnings in the South China Sea, and the arrogant, undiplomatic behaviour — strongly criticised incidentally by numerous Chinese ‘netizens’— of the Chinese ambassador towards an Indian journalist at a public function, have contributed to this. Proclamations of a desire for peace by China’s leaders are contradicted by shrill, threatening articles in the official Chinese media. If the political leadership in both countries do not want to risk economic development being derailed by an unintended incident, they must look for a big, new idea. This will need to tap the indigenous resources of both countries and form the basis for confidence-enhancing long-term cooperation that is not readily susceptible to disruption.
Strategic geography — which includes varied indices like adverse demographic patterns, resource vulnerabilities, technology advantages, ethnic strife and politically important economic development compulsions — is changing and compelling nations to seek new ways to stay competitive and build relationships in spite of sharing rough volatile neighbourhoods. China and India are both affected to varying degrees by a mix of these factors and should be thinking similarly.
Major advances in defence technology and military hardware, coupled with new breakthroughs in the development of space and missile weaponry, no longer make mountainous and inhospitable frontiers an obstacle. Added to this is the vital political imperative of maintaining an acceptable pace of economic growth so as to create an adequate number of jobs despite severe energy shortages. This is crucial for internal stability. Among other areas of looming serious concern, especially for China, are the ageing population and rapid advances in communications technology, like the Internet and ‘new media’, which add to public pressure on the government.
A major area that offers itself for long-term joint endeavour is the harnessing of a dependable and secure source of alternate energy with a minimal carbon footprint.
China unveiled an ambitious plan for harnessing solar energy in space to tackle its need for a secure and abundant source of energy. The China Academy of Space Technology, a research institute under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, publicised on September 1, that plans had been submitted to the central government to build a facility in space to capture solar power and relay it to earth to generate electricity. Senior officials of the National Development and Reform Commission and National Energy Administration enthusiastically received the plan.
An author of the proposal, 90-year old Professor Wang Xiji, wrote in the Ministry of Science and Technology newspaper, Science Times, that China had built a solid industrial foundation, acquired sufficient technology and had enough money to carry out the most ambitious space project in history. Once completed, the solar station, with a capacity of 100MW, would span at least one square kilometre, dwarfing the International Space Station and becoming the biggest man-made object in space. Wang Xiji added that the solar station would overcome several shortcomings of earth-based solar power plants, including problems caused by the vagaries of weather, wasteful land use and complete shutdown at night. Once placed in a sufficiently high permanent geostationary orbit, the solar station would provide consistent energy supply for virtually the entire year. He urged China to move quickly lest other countries, especially the US and Japan, occupy strategically important locations in space.
The team led by Wang Xiji completed research on the development, timelines and policy for space solar power station technology in August. The programme aims to complete analysis of space solar power applications, detailed design of system solutions as well as key technologies for authentication by 2020. It envisages that a space solar energy station will be completed and ready for commercial use by 2040.
Professor Jiang Kaili, a physicist at Tsinghua University, said that in theory wireless energy transmission was possible. Chinese space scientists are considering lasers and microwaves for generating concentrated beams that could travel long distances with relatively little energy loss, but have reportedly not yet figured out how to protect people or birds that might get in the way.
Other countries have been exploring the establishment of solar power stations. The US space agency NASA proposed a solar power station in the 1960s, while Japan’s JAXA selected a group of companies and researchers in 2009 to design and build the Space Solar Power System, a massive array of photovoltaic panels, with an anticipated launch date of 2020. Opinions on the feasibility of solar stations differ, with some scientists maintaining that some technical hurdles cannot be solved by existing technology. These include lifting large amounts of construction materials into space, putting them together and safely transferring the energy to earth.
China has for many years been developing a strong scientific base by investing heavily in training scientists, scientific research and technological development. The proportion of GDP spent on R&D has grown from 0.9 per cent in 2000 to the present 1.62 per cent. The Chinese government has said this will increase to 2.5 per cent of the GDP by 2020. China’s R&D expenditure currently totals $150 billion. Nevertheless, as China’s hi-tech industries grow, the shortage of trained scientific manpower is likely to become more acute.
India has similarly been investing in science and made remarkable progress in space science and technology. Its space scientists have been independently exploring avenues for alternate sources of cheaper energy. It has indigenous high grade, advanced scientific know-how in space-related sciences and an available talent pool. India also has adequate financial resources. An immense potential for cooperation and collaboration to harness the sun’s energy exists.
The project offers the leadership of both countries the opportunity to invest resources and scientific know-how in a venture that has the promise to substantially alleviate their national energy concerns. Participation by China and India in the solar energy project, anticipated to become operational in 30 years, will provide adequate time to promote understanding and dispel suspicion. The investment of high grade scientific resources, huge amount of finances and the anticipated mutual benefit, should deter disruption of the project. Finally, in addition to the numerous beneficial diplomatic spin-offs, the project will usher a technical revolution in the fields of new energy, new material and solar energy leading to the emergence of several industries and simultaneously elevating the manufacturing technology and capabilities of both countries.
(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India