Increasing strategic weight in Asia is making its effects felt in new ways. Australians are already familiar with Japan’s more open stance on military exports, with a possible submarine collaboration garnering plenty of local press. Less well known, but just as important, is Japan’s vigorous new space policy. At Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s urging, the country has begun to develop a comprehensive space policy. This is aimed at producing a bigger space industry—and it was sizeable to begin with—and a more comprehensive dual use of space for commercial purposes and as way of furthering Japan’s national security interests.
Japanese space policy up to now has been constrained and civilian, and it was effectively a client of US space based surveillance and intelligence collection under alliance arrangements. The 1998 flight-test of the North Korean Taepodong missile, in a trajectory that took it across Japan, constituted a major turning point for how Japan thought about security issues in relation to space, and spurred thoughts of greater sovereign space capability. Abe has brought a new dynamism to the portfolio, further boosting efforts that in coming years will see Japan have much more capable space-based assets and building stronger international linkages for space cooperation.
Japan isn’t attempting to militarise space—it doesn’t plan to deploy weapons in space or develop anti-satellite capabilities. Rather, this is another step in normalising its international security posture by moving into areas that many other countries already exploit. The sort of dual-use technologies which it is developing most rapidly—such as a GPS augmentation system with an accuracy of several centimetres—will have applications such as self-drive cars and automated farming.
Indeed, Japan’s responding to a shifting balance of power in outer space which is increasingly multipolar rather than the bipolar Cold War ‘space race’, and which includes a greater number of Asian players. It’s also responding to growing risks in the space environment, from space debris and the threat of anti-satellite attacks. And, naturally, it wants to be an independent contributor to tackling a range of global challenges where space-based assets can be of assistance.
Growth in space-related capabilities will underline Japan’s new relevance in Asia, so the effects will be regional and geopolitical, not merely national and industrial. Japan will likely find that its new space policy initiatives press up against those of other players, like China and India. But it should also find that those same initiatives open doors across much of Southeast Asia, where countries like Indonesia could benefit greatly from closer cooperation with Japan in this field.
There‘s probably an opportunity for Australia too, given the deepening relationship with Japan. There’s scope for cooperation in applications such as remote sensing and surveillance, in civilian or military applications, or both. As well as both countries being long-time users of space-based applications and beneficiaries of American satellite capabilities, there’s a geographical factor that helps align interests. The coincidence of longitude between the two countries means that the footprint of polar low earth orbit satellites covers areas of immediate interest to both several times a day. And the footprints of geostationary satellites covers both—Australian and New Zealand meteorological bureaux both use data from Japan’s Himawari satellites.
One possibility is satellite radar surveillance. Australia has floated the idea of having its own synthetic aperture radar satellite in the past and the idea even found its way into the 2009 Defence White Paper as stated policy, though the system never eventuated. Australia could develop its own satellite if it decided to—Canada has—but a joint development and splitting of R&D and acquisition costs with a like-minded partner would make good sense, especially if it resulted in a larger number of satellites with subsequently greater coverage. Alternatively, there might be a business case for Australia to buy into a Japanese system. One potential model is the way that Defence has bought into the American WGS communication system, paying for one satellite in a larger constellation, to the benefit of both parties.
Australia doesn’t have a national space policy, and perhaps we need to follow Japan’s lead on this one. There have been studies over the years that have suggested some possible directions for Australian space capability but the idea hasn’t got a lot of traction in the Canberra policy community. Part of the problem is that the topic sometimes gets taken up by ‘true believers’ who think that Australia could and should have an end to end space capability, right up to its own launch facilities. While we could do that, there’s no need to, given that much of what we need is available elsewhere. But some careful thought about how we could leverage the opportunities provided by our geography and industrial capability and the investment of friends and allies could pay off. We could do a lot worse than look at what a potential partner like Japan brings to the table.