The Significance of India’s Mission to Mars

India's 'Mangalyaan' spacecraft blasts-off on a mission to Mars. Credit: IRSO

India’s ‘Mangalyaan’ spacecraft blasts-off on a mission to Mars. Credit: ISRO

On September 24, after months of flying through the depths of space, a spacecraft passed by Mars and ignited its engines, putting it in orbit around the ‘Red Planet.’ Meanwhile, back on Earth, Indian mission controllers broke into celebration. Having sent a spacecraft into orbit around another planet for the first time, India had just succeeded in a feat of technical and engineering brilliance. Doing so, it joined an exclusive club of space-faring powers to explore this distant world. Aside from India, only the United States, Russia, and the European Space Agency have accomplished this incredible achievement. India’s mission to Mars is remarkable in a number of regards, and has a number of important international implications.

In a technical perspective, this mission was a marvel. At around 75 million dollars, the spacecraft cost India less money to build, launch, and operate than it cost to produce the movies “Gravity” or“Mission to Mars.” It was also a fraction of the cost the United States spent to deliver the MAVEN spacecraft to Mars, a mission which was happening simultaneously with this one. Exploring space successfully on the cheap was a powerful demonstration of India’s growing technical and scientific expertise. Yet not only did India manage to pull of the feat of getting into Martian on a shoestring budget, it became the first country ever to do so on the first attempt. For the first time, India is making history in the annals of space exploration. The Indians have a reason to be proud, and rightly so.

The technical brilliance of this mission aside, there are a number of important international implications for India’s recent success. In the realm of international relations, space exploration is an important arena for competition. The ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s amply demonstrates this. Rising powers want the prestige and expertise that come with spaceflight, for they boost those countries standings in the international realm. Though the space race between the two superpowers of the Cold War may be over, a new one is rapidly emerging in the Asia-Pacific. Rising powers such as China and India are locked in competition for hegemony in the region, and are dueling it out in space.

India’s mission is an impressive first in Asian space exploration. No other Asian power has successfully sent a spacecraft to Mars. China’s Yinghou-1 probe, launched in 2011, and Japan’s Nozomi spacecraft, launched in 1998, were earlier Mars missions by Asian powers. Both failed to reach the planet. India is thus keeping pace with a China that has already succeeded with manned flight and put rovers on the Moon – achievements which India has yet to attempt. As the region continues to grow economically, and as India and China continue to rise, we are bound to see greater competition between them in space. The early stages of a new ‘space race’ are clearly evident.

Space exploration is vitally important for humanity as it continues to develop and advance at breakneck pace. Exploring the ‘final frontier’ is perhaps one of the most difficult and complicated challenges we’ve yet faced. Confronting those challenges generates a skilled, learned workforce, propelling economies and fostering intellectual growth. Even more importantly, exploration is fundamentally human. It is our curiosity, our desire to learn the unknown, that sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Space exploration represents the apex of that curiosity, as it offers us the possibility to know the vast universe around us. It brings out the best in us, and binds us together in powerful ways. Advancing the human frontier transcends boundaries, cultures, languages, and ideologies.

It is because of this that Asian exploration of and competition in space is a hugely positive thing. The ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union eventually resulted in human footsteps on the Moon – arguably humanity’s most impressive achievement ever. As China and India gear up their space programs with the hope of winning prestige and setting firsts, who knows what incredible achievements await us?

Introduction to ‘The Islamic State, a Product of American Policy Failures?’

One of the most significant developments in the Middle East over the last year has been the rise of the ‘Islamic State,’ a Sunni jihadist group that is now active in and controls territory in Iraq and Syria. Known by a variety of other names, such as ISIS and ISIL, and described by the United Nations and various other states as a terrorist organization that disregards human rights, the Islamic State represents a dangerous new evolution in Islamic jihad. Not content with simply carrying out terrorist attacks against its enemies, the Islamic State has proclaimed itself as a caliphate, claims authority over all Muslims of the world, and aspires to bring the Muslim world under its political control.

The Islamic States’ consolidation of power in Iraq and Syria comes 11 years after the American-led invasion of Iraq and 13 years after President George W. Bush proclaimed the “War on Terror.” Clearly, the United States’ objectives of rooting out radical Islam in the Middle East has failed. Numerous factors have abetted the Islamic States’ rise, many of which are not directly related to American involvement or engagement in the region. After all, the Middle East is a dynamic region with numerous actors and evolving political, economic, and sectarian realities, all of which have contributed in some form or another to the Islamic States’ success. Nonetheless, as the major power directly involved in the Middle East over the last decade and a half, the United States has had significant influence over the region, and as such has shaped the circumstances on the ground. The rise of the Islamic State can thus be explored and explained through an analysis of the United States’ regional policy, and doing so will be the intent of this paper. American policy failures and flaws have created an environment which allowed a jihadist group such as the Islamic State to garner popular support, secure military equipment and funding, and establish political control over captured territory.

This thesis broaches a number of research questions. First, the rise of the Islamic State must be explored. What are the factors that garnered the Islamic State support? What were the circumstances that allowed it to gain and consolidate territory in Syria and Iraq? Next, the United States’ involvement in the region needs to be analyzed. In pursuit of its anti-terror objectives, was the United States actually limited in its ability to shape the regional situation, or, if it wasn’t, was its foreign policy simply flawed? How are the aspects of the Islamic States’ rise directly and indirectly connected to the United States’ regional policy since the Iraq war? How did American policy towards the Syrian civil war allow the Islamic State to dominate moderate, non-jihadist rebel factions? In what ways did American policy fail to create a strong, stable government in Iraq capable of dealing with the threat?

This paper hopes to demonstrate that the current situation in the Middle East is a result of poor foreign policy planning and execution on the United States’ part. While the United States cannot be fully blamed for the rise of the Islamic State, it has still played a significant role in shaping the environment to allow for it. There is enormous significance in analyzing American policy failures and their connection to the Islamic States’ rise. The Islamic State represents the antithesis of the United States’ vision for the region, and as such America’s policy towards the Middle East must be reconsidered. By understanding where past policies have failed and why, American policymakers can develop new strategies for dealing with the Islamic State or groups like it. Terrorism and jihad cannot be ‘defeated’ in the conventional sense, but must be dealt with through effective policies that degrade terrorist organizations’ support and limit their ability to act. As can be seen by the Islamic States’ growing territorial holdings and popular support, past American policies have failed in this regard. Understanding these failures will allow American policymakers to re-frame or reformulate their approach to combating terrorism, with the hope that new policies could more effectively deal with the issue. Furthermore, recognizing the flaws in the United States’ ‘nation-building’ in Iraq will allow policymakers to be better prepared and equipped for future involvement in other states’ affairs.

This paper allows for the application of various theoretical approaches. Understanding how and why a group such as the Islamic States operates as it does necessitates a knowledge of fundamentalism and radicalization. This paper hopes to explore their theoretical basis to analyze how they fit into the situation in the Middle East. The Islamic State has won popular support by portraying itself as a defender of Sunni Muslims and as an opponent of political and economic oppression in Iraq. To understand the appeal of those claims, a theoretical understanding of oppression and sectarianism is vitally important. As such, this paper will further explore those factors in the context of Iraq, and will determine whether they are consequences of failures in America’s ‘nation-building’ policies.

The United States’ Coming Role in a Changing Asia-Pacific

While the rise of ISIS, the “War on Terror,” and the crisis in the Ukraine may have the attention of U.S. policymakers focused on Europe and the Middle East, it is in the Asia-Pacific region that American strategic interests are most at stake. With China rising rapidly on the world stage, it will be increasingly difficult for the United States to act as the dominant regional actor. As suggested by its recent “pivot” to the region, the United States needs to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific if it wishes to play a constructive, balancing role in the coming decades. However, the circumstances of the region will limit America’s capacity to ‘contain’ China and directly shape the balance of power. This paper explores the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific. Drawing into consideration the numerous possibilities for and limitations on American influence in the region, it lays out a possible policy direction the United States can take in the coming decade – that of ‘cooperative competition’ with China.

 The ‘Asia-Pacific’ is an expansive region, home to major powers such as China, Japan, and Australia and to advanced economies such as Singapore and South Korea. For over the last half century a key characteristic of the Asia-Pacific has been the American presence, a result of the United States’ regional participation in World War II and Cold War strategy of ‘containing’ communism. Having forged close military and economic relationships with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the United States was arguably the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific through the latter half of the 20th century. This leading role was maintained despite multifaceted and often daunting challenges: the “loss” of China to the Soviet camp and subsequent U.S. alignment with its Maoist government, the costly and protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the United States’ seeming inability to compete economically with Japan in the 1970s and 1980s[1]. America’s historically preserving influence in the region thus suggests durable leadership and offers hope for its continuation through the 21st century.

 Yet the Asia-Pacific today is a region of changing dynamics and balances of power, the likes of which present an enormous challenge to American regional leadership. The United States itself is emerging out of the worst recession in almost a century, protracted and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is suffering from acute political polarization and gridlock. These factors have eroded American international clout and limited the United States’ ability to make policy for the region. Meanwhile, an increasingly assertive Russia is trying to reestablish itself in Asia. Japan and India are trying to play larger regional roles, and China is on course to be a global superpower second only to the United States by the 2020s[2]. Looking at the region in the ‘Realist’ perspective of international relations, strategic cooperation and balancing between these powers – especially the United States and China – point to future characterized by major-power competition. American policymakers cannot expect the United States to be the unrivaled hegemon in the coming decades.

However, a structural polarity between the United States and China has not emerged. A Cold War-esque system of competing blocs and alliances is no longer a realistic scenario for the region. Rather than aligning with either the United States or China, many countries have opted to form close ties with both[3]. Increasingly, states in the Asia-Pacific seek to maximize their range of strategic options by avoiding commitments that could lead them into conflict. They do not feel a need to seek alignment with a major power in order to protect themselves. Instead, states are forming diverse bilateral and multilateral relationships in order to increase their security and support strategic interests. The unwillingness of states in the region to be put into a ‘sphere of influence’ constrains the United States’ ability to pursue a strategy of ‘direct’ containment and coalition-building against China. Still, China’s growing military capability has increasingly motivated neighbors to draw themselves more closely to the United States[4].

This “hedging” strategy of engagement with both China and the United States is in part a result of complex interdependence developing between growing regional economies. China is the number one or two trading partner of almost every country in East Asia, and six of China’s biggest trade partners are found in the Asia-Pacific[5]. As a major importer of Asian-produced goods, the United States is also deeply connected to the region economically. ‘Liberal’ international theorists see these economic ties and this interdependence as binding countries together, thereby restricting their strategic competition. These economic ties are an important part of the security calculus for many states. Deeply interdependent with both America and China, Asian countries would resist choosing sides in a future conflict[6]. A conflict or trade dispute between the United States and China would greatly impact the economies of countries throughout the region, if not the world. Recognizing this, policymakers in both Beijing and Washington are wary of competition which would jeopardize their economic relationship.

The Asia-Pacific is also marked by increased intra-regional interaction and interdependence and the development of multilateral institutions. Liberal international relations would argue that these organizations, along with other forms of multilateralism, allow states in the region to build norms of cooperation and deepen strategic ties. More than a dozen major intergovernmental organizations can be found in the region, though there currently exists no single pan-regional organization[7]. It should be noted, however, that while the proliferation of intergovernmental organizations is becoming a feature of the regional order, they are at present under-institutionalized, often non-binding, and too diffuse[8]. Still, the growth of Asian multilateralism and interdependence nonetheless offers the United States a chance for deeper integration into, and thus influence in, the region.

As China’s rise is bound to influence and alter regional dynamics, it is crucial for American policymakers to understand China’s perspective and foreign policy goals. A stable regional environment that supports China’s economic growth and regional influence is the preferred outcome for Chinese policymakers. China’s strategic dilemma thus lies in the difficulty of forming a dominant regional role without antagonizing the United States or alienating other regional powers. To achieve this aim, the Chinese disclaim a desire to dominate Asia, announcing instead that they pursue a policy of equality, mutual respect, and non-interference. Yet increasingly, Chinese policymakers are expecting weaker countries to defer to China’s wishes[9]. Meanwhile, China is highly sensitive to and suspicious of America’s power projection, which it views as an attempt to contain China’s economic and political rise. Nonetheless, Chinese policymakers acknowledge that the desire to avoid a military confrontation with the United States will encourage US-Chinese cooperation[10].

Such are the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, which serve as the context for America’s policy in and recent “pivot” to the region. The pivot can be seen as the United States’ strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, a signal to regional powers that its attention on the Middle East, terrorism, and democratization is over[11]. It is easy to see China’s rise as the causal explanation for the pivot, but it is far from the only one. Piracy, international smuggling, illegal drug trades, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and natural disasters are only a few of the many issues in the Asia-Pacific which extend beyond the nature of the U.S.-China relationship. To frame the United States’ renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific as simply a means to counter China’s rise, then, risks drawing suspicion from Chinese policymakers and limits the possibilities for American engagement in the region. As such, the United States’ has tried to portray the pivot as focusing on the region at large[12]. Indeed, the pivot is really just a continuation of policies that have shaped America’s interaction with the region for nearly a decade – forming deeper ties with established and emerging markets and strengthening its regional diplomatic, military, and multilateral ties.

Moving forward into the next decade, the United States should continue, and redouble, those efforts. American policymakers must recognize that China’s rise is an inevitability, that the United States is heavily constrained in its ability to directly ‘contain’ China, and that conflict with China is highly undesirable for the region. How, then, can the United States maintain a dominant role and favorable balance of power in the region? This paper suggests that the United States should play a leading role in creating an environment of cooperation and multilateralism, in which regional actors are mutually pursuant of issues of common interest. The suspicions and security dilemmas that come with ‘realpolitik’ will be tempered by norms of cooperation and mutual support. In such an environment, unilateral aggression or assertions of hegemony will be met with a regional counterbalance; feeling threatened, states will naturally form ‘coalitions’ to contain the threat. Considering the current dynamics of the region, it would thus be strategically and economically detrimental for rising powers such as China to over-assert their power. With regards to the Chinese-American relationship, such an environment would enable them to channel competition for regional influence and dominance in a constructive manner. Rather than building spheres of influence through military alliances and power-of-balance considerations, they could do so by taking the lead on facing the vast array of issues affecting the region at large. This ‘cooperative competition’ has the potential to reframe the nature of the Chinese-American relationship in the coming century; rather than two great powers strategically competing for hegemonic dominance over the region, these two great powers can share – potentially even support support each others’ – influence by combating regional issues in a multilateral way.

Such a policy is formed by a consideration of the United States’ limitations in the region and it’s current regional policies. The Cold War-era of alliance blocs and post-Cold War-era of unipolar hegemony are over; the world is increasingly multipolar and increasingly interdependent. Though countries may look to the United States to play a leading regional role, they do not want to be drawn into a major power conflict. Ultimately, the greatest potential for American influence may lie in its ability to engage and strengthen ties with intergovernmental organizations, support regional economies, and combating issues of regional interest. It is, after all, through these means that the United States’ has been able to maintain a position of relevance in a changing region. Though the Asia-Pacific’s present intergovernmental and multilateral environment, upon which this policy relies, is fractured and weak, it is growing – the United States thus has a powerful opportunity to shape it in line with its strategic interests in the coming decade. This policy is further formed by a consideration of domestic American politics. Economic and multilateral ties are not as reliant upon congressional funding as, say, a sustained military presence. By focusing on building norms rather than employing hard power, the United States will be more secure in its regional footing should partisan gridlock or funding cuts come out of Washington.

The Asia-Pacific, and in particular the United States’ relationship with China, is poised to become the international focus of the 21st century. It is thus imperative that the United States pursue a strategy that establishes lasting norms of peaceful cooperation – and peaceful competition – in the coming decade. This is an area marked by changing dynamics which limit the United States’ ability to directly contain China’s rise, but which also offer new possibilities for American regional leadership. Whether American policymakers recognize this and take advantage of it will be seen in the coming years.

[1] Sutter, Robert. “The United States in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 93. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[2] Shambaugh, David. “International Relations in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 17-18. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[3] Ibid, 16.

[4] Cossa, Ralph A. “Security Dynamics in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 368. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[5] Kim, Samuel S. “The Evolving Asian System.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 53. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[6] Shambaugh, David. “International Relations in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 17-18. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[7] Ibid, 21.

[8] Ibid, 20.

[9] Roy, Denny. “More Security for Rising China, Less for Others?” AsiaPacific Analysis, no. 106, January 2013.

[10] Xeutong, Yan. “China. Striving for Preventive Cooperation,” Regional Perspectives on the U.S. Rebalance. Asia-Pacific Defense Forum, January 1, 2014.

[11] Schiavenza, Matt. “What Exactly Does it Mean That the U.S. Is Pivoting to Asia?” The Atlantic, August 4, 2014.

[12] Forum Staff. “Regional Perspectives on the U.S. Rebalance.Asia-Pacific Defense Forum, January 1, 2014.