NEW DELHI -- India, Japan and other space-faring countries are waking up to a harsh reality: Earth's orbit is becoming a more dangerous place as the U.S., China and Russia compete for control of the final frontier.
Growing fears that satellites could be threatened by newfangled space weapons or sophisticated hacking are forcing governments to think of their space programs not just as scientific endeavors but as pressing national security concerns.
China has a "sophisticated military space program in place," said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent think tank in India. So countries like India and Japan, which have promoted space development from a "civilian and peaceful perspective," are "increasingly driven to develop certain military characteristics."
This explains India and Japan's recent decision to launch a Space Dialogue this March. The countries intend to cooperate not only on lunar exploration but also security, including surveillance sharing.
New Delhi is nervous because China has made no secret of its desire for influence in the Indian Ocean. China set up a naval base in Djibouti, a gateway to the ocean at the Horn of Africa. It secured a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It is deeply involved in development projects in Maldives.
Beijing is "setting up capacities that can be used in the future," Rajagopalan said. India, she said, "has been forced to join" the space defense race because, if it does not enhance its capabilities, it "will face certain disadvantages when it comes to conflicts."
India has established itself as a player in the budget satellite business. It even put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, in a U.S.-assisted project that cost just $76 million. But it is scurrying to enhance its ability to monitor China's activities, and the partnership with Japan is part of this.
Another sign that space is becoming a defense focus for India came on Dec. 19, when the country launched its third military communications satellite, the GSAT-7A. The satellite will connect with ground-based radar, bases and military aircraft, along with drone control networks.
Japan, for its part, had space in mind when it published new national defense guidelines in December. Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters at the time that space, cyber and electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, attacks were major concerns in a security environment that is evolving with "extraordinary speed."
All of this comes amid an intensifying technological race between the U.S. and China.
China's success in landing a craft on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3 came as a fresh reminder of its growing prowess. In late December, China also achieved global coverage with its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Only the U.S., Russia and the European Union had that capability.
China aims to launch a Mars explorer in 2020 and complete its own Earth-orbiting space station around 2022.
These are ostensibly peaceful endeavors, and Beijing makes a point of promoting international cooperation. It announced last May that its space station would be open to all United Nations members.
"The China Space Station belongs not only to China but also to the world," Shi Zhongjun, the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
But China's progress has clear geopolitical and military implications, experts say.
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in the U.S., called the moon mission "an enormous scientific achievement." Still, he cautioned, "The Chinese have always viewed their space program as a political message," Cheng said.
"Developing an advanced space capability," he said, "will be exploited for political as well as military purposes."
In the back of Indian and Japanese officials' minds is likely a stunning test China conducted in 2007. Beijing successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a weapon, becoming only the third nation to pull off such a feat, after the Soviet Union and the U.S.
"Russian and Chinese destructive ASAT (anti-satellite) weapons probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years," the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community predicted.
The U.S., meanwhile, is becoming more vocal about space as a new battleground and is changing its military structure accordingly. In December, President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Defense to create a Space Command, widely seen as a precursor to a full-fledged Space Force.
Vice President Mike Pence, while laying out a vision for a Space Force at the Pentagon in August, said, "As their actions make clear, our adversaries have transformed space into a war-fighting domain already, and the United States will not shrink from this challenge."
Figuring out how to defend satellites and other space assets may be the biggest challenge of all. Yasuhito Fukushima, a research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies of Japan, said, "What makes it difficult is that in space, offense is overwhelmingly dominant over defense."
There were 1,957 active satellites orbiting Earth as of Nov. 30, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit U.S. advocacy group. America had the most by far, with 849, or 43% of the total. China was No. 2, with 284, followed by Russia with 152.
Japan and India had a combined 132 -- 75 for the former and 57 for the latter.
What can be done to protect the satellites?
Japan, India and other countries increasingly emphasize a concept known as space situational awareness, or SSA. The term refers to systems that keep tabs on conditions and threats in space -- from orbiting junk to satellite killers -- using radar and sensors on the ground.
India has plans to set up five large ground stations and more than 500 small installations in five countries -- Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka -- the Times of India reported on Jan. 3.
There are also broader diplomatic efforts afoot, as world powers look to establish laws or a nonbinding code of conduct for space. Yet they do not see eye to eye.
The European Union tried to push a "soft law" on international space activity, winning support from the U.S., Japan, Australia and others. China and Russia refused to play along, and India initially opposed it as well, perceiving the attempt as Europe foisting rules on developing countries.
"China and Russia have consistently tabled self-serving proposals that would not limit their own anti-satellite weapons development"Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation
China and Russia have their own proposal for banning space weapons with a treaty under the Geneva Conference on Disarmament. The U.S. opposes this, arguing the proposal fails to address ground-launched weapons and would make defending space assets impossible.
"China and Russia have consistently tabled self-serving proposals that would not limit their own anti-satellite weapons development," Cheng said.
Rajagopalan said India did not support China and Russia's draft treaty either, partly due to "so many ambiguities." But she would like to see India play an active role. "Unless India sits in the room and becomes an active participant, [it] will not have the upper hand."
Either way, getting the superpowers to agree is always going to be difficult. That leaves Japan and India to find their own strategies and solutions.
Asked about the India-Japan dialogue, Cheng said the two countries are both "clearly uncomfortable with Chinese strategic expansion."
"This cooperation, and the broader defense and foreign policy cooperation that we already see, will be a major part of the Asian security context in the coming decade."
Nikkei staff writer Yuji Kuronuma in New Delhi and Nikkei Asian Review assistant politics & economy news editor Yujin Yanaseko in Tokyo contributed to this report.