LVM3 lifts off carrying Vikram lunar lander

New faces on the final frontier

India has joined the club of states to have landed spacecraft on the moon - a matter of geopolitics rather than scientific endeavour, suggests Paul Demarty

The successful landing of India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft on the moon has triggered a great deal of interest.

India becomes the fourth state to achieve a successful moon landing - after China, the USSR and USA - and the first to land on the moon’s south pole (the Russians failed recently to do so). By all accounts, this has been met with wild celebrations in India and among the Indian diaspora in other countries.

The landing came at an auspicious time for Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister, who got to celebrate while in South Africa for the summit of the Brics states - among them India. The moon mission underscored India’s increasingly important role in the global economy, and its status as the only serious competitor for leadership within the soon to be expanded Brics group, as against a much richer China.

Indeed, the question arises as to what the point of this sort of endeavour is. An Australian BBC presenter got into a spot of hot water for questioning why huge amounts of money were being poured into a space programme amid India’s dire poverty and poor infrastructure. While this triggered understandable outrage at the patronising neo-colonial arrogance of the BBC, the question really is worth asking - and not only of India.

The United States, after all, has poverty, as well as an increasingly rickety infrastructure, as does Russia, and - despite its economic ‘miracle’ - China. Should these countries be throwing money at this stuff? Why do they? There is some marginal scientific interest, of course. The Indian rover will traipse around taking photographs and geological samples. There is much hype about the possibility of finding water ice, which in principle could support crewed lunar bases after the fashion of 2001: a space odyssey. But then, what would be the point of that? Are there not more attractive potential outlets for scientific research than discovering a few interesting facts about the moon?

Costly display

Partly it is just for prestige. A space programme is what evolutionary biologists would call a ‘costly display’, analogous to a peacock’s tail - the point of spending (wasting?) money on this stuff is to signify wider vitality. That only four states have achieved this feat - one of which no longer exists - sends a certain message. For an ex-colony, subject to the usual patterns of underdevelopment and catastrophic interference from the old masters, the point is even more sharply made: a space programme is far away from the highly-dependent, extractive, low-productivity economies typical of ex- and semi-colonies.

Though the first soft moon landings (that is, where the craft survives intact) are now more than half a century past, and we all walk around with vastly more powerful computers in our pockets than that which got Apollo 11 to its destination, this remains a feat of formidable difficulty and engineering sophistication.

Yet this projection is not merely about India. The coincidence with the Brics summit is salutary. America’s failure to get the world on board with its proxy war against Russia has led to a fresh spate of announcements of a brave new, multipolar world order. On the face of it, there is only one serious challenger to US hegemony - China. (The EU might have had pretensions in this area, but its failure to sufficiently centralise, its disastrous handling of the 2008-15 economic crises, and now its total and laughable subjection to US policy in Russia-Ukraine have put paid to that.) Yet it need not be the only one. India has, after all, a similarly large population (and much higher birth rate), a high level of especially scientific and technical education, and so forth. It already has an impressive share of global production (depending on how you count such things), and may plausibly be said to be punching below its weight.

Yet China need not square off against its largest neighbour (though occasional wars have taken place). The advantage of being the challenger for hegemony is that you do not have quite so much imperial machinery to maintain, or so many coupon-clippers to enrich. You can play nice, and flatter potential allies rather than pushing them around. So long as the Brics summit was a success - and it was - the prestige of India’s “costly display” accrues transitively to its allies.

There are more - so to speak - earthly considerations here, however, which also have to do with grand strategy. Once we dig beneath the guff about moon bases, what do we find in terms of concrete next steps for India’s space sector? There is talk of becoming a producer of private satellites, and (we may infer) satellites for India’s own military-intelligence needs. This is serious business. Part of what it means to be the hegemon is to control the interstices of the physical world. Before 1900, that mainly meant the sea - Britannia rules the waves, and all that. The invention of powered flight, and its rapid employment as a weapon of war and means of spying, added the skies to the equation. The real legacy of the space race was to turn the immediate neighbourhood of the planet into yet another theatre of great power competition.

In this sphere, the US long enjoyed unquestioned supremacy. Many of the weapons it sells to other countries effectively depend on the GPS satellite system and similar technologies to function effectively, for example; a truly independent military capability, at comparable levels of technology to the US, requires independent space capability as well. GPS-like systems have now been rolled out by a familiar list of countries - Russia, China and India. Though the Indian system as yet only covers India itself, and a 1,500km radius around it, the success of Chandrayaan-3 suggests that the gap may be fairly easily closed.


The new space race, then, has rather more competitors than the last one, which would seem to lend credence to the wider multipolarity thesis. It would go something like this: GPS no longer has a monopoly on global positioning, just as the dollar is slowly but surely being replaced as the reserve currency, to be replaced by a basket of different currencies; and just as the US no longer has unquestionable military superiority over its nearest rivals, and there is every reason to suppose that, should the American state succeed in provoking a war with China over Taiwan, there would be no easy victory.

This paper has always been sceptical of the multipolarity thesis, but there is an important truth to it. The phenomena listed above really are happening - although some (especially dedollarisation) are grossly overstated. These are all symptoms of US decline, which is quite real. Yet powers can decline for a long, long time. One could perhaps date the decline of British global power from the conclusion of the US civil war and the completion of Bismarck’s wars of German unification, which resulted in two new great-power rivals by 1900. It was not until British defeat in the early days of World War II, and the consequent transfer of global dominance to the US when it entered the war, that Britain was finally supplanted. And that is a fairly quick turnaround by world historic standards - the Roman empire declined for centuries before its hegemony over the Mediterranean was finally ended by the Germanic conquests in the 4th and 5th centuries.

US military spending continues to dwarf all its competitors. Its supremacy in air and sea power is unquestionable. So, for the time being, is its advantage in space. Its relative decline notably affects its ability to deliver favourable outcomes in its military adventures. Its various escapades increasingly lead to chaos and state failure, rather than the cultivation of local potentates as allies and clients. America’s defeat, after 20 years of blood and treasure wasted, to the Taliban in Afghanistan was a signal example of this phenomenon - US power proved completely incapable of producing a viable alternative power centre, and therefore, after a gory 20-year interregnum, we have the return of the burqa, the suppression of religious minorities, and the general medievalism of the Taliban. The power to bring disaster, however, remains; and, while it is unclear whether the US could win a hot war in China’s backyard, it is entirely clear that China would suffer defeat in America’s (never mind India …).

Hegemons are displaced, in the end, by military defeat on a scale sufficient to break supremacy altogether. The US is simply not (yet) vulnerable to such a defeat. What such a defeat would entail in the age of large nuclear arsenals is not clear, and a troubling thing to contemplate. For that reason, those leftists of a third-worldist bent who welcome a multipolar order should be careful what they wish for. Under capitalism especially, there is room for exactly one military and financial hegemon, and the road to such hegemony is paved with bones. The rise of political figures like the pogromist Modi, the personal autocrat Xi Jinping, the clown-car revanchist Donald Trump, among others, exemplifies the drift towards such apocalyptic warfare.

In the interim, initiatives like India’s space programme (and, for that matter, the expansion of the Brics group) serve to put the Americans on notice that nothing lasts forever.