For Taiwan, the sky is no longer the limit, or at least it appears so in light of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) focus on expanding the nation’s space program.
In August 2018, Tsai visited NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, which made her the first Taiwanese leader to enter a US federal building in an official capacity.
Taiwan’s stride to space was boosted when Tsai, in her inaugural speech on May 20 last year, declared that space is one of the core strategic industries for public and private development. It was followed by an introduction of a draft bill on the nation’s future space ambitions. The bill proposes making the National Space Organization (NSPO) an independent agency by decoupling it from the Ministry of Science and Technology.
This was trailed by the launch of two Taiwan-made satellites — YuSat (named after Yushan, 玉山) and Ionospheric Dynamics Explorer and Attitude Subsystem Satellite (dubbed “Flying Squirrel”) — by Space X. They were launched on a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Jan. 24.
Tsai has pushed for increasing ties with countries included in the government’s New Southbound Policy in technology, one of the nation’s critical sectors, but cooperation in space technology has received less attention than it deserves.
With the administration’s commitment to furthering relationships with these countries, the time is ripe for expanding cooperation with their space programs, especially with that of India. One of the critical areas where cooperation in space could be mutually beneficial is agriculture, which is already a core sector under the policy.
Among these countries, India has one of the most active and proven space programs. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has launched multiple foreign payloads and is also the first country to reach Mars on its first attempt. Such a feat is not easy, especially given that ISRO’s budget is a fraction of those of other countries with similar ambitions.
It also boasts a commercial arm, New Space India Ltd. One of its critical objectives is to operate launch services, which it has been able to do successfully.
The NSPO previously sought to collaborate with India in 2018. When they met, the Taiwanese side saw immense potential in jointly tracking weather patterns — an endeavor beneficial to both as they face multiple typhoons and cyclones every year.
However, such talks have not been followed up on — or any such details have not yet been made public. One reason for this might be that the NSPO is still an agency under the Ministry of Science and Technology. Making NSPO independent would facilitate collaboration and cooperation with overseas partners, such as ISRO, in such a high-value technical industry. As an independent agency, it would also have more flexibility to form partnerships with foreign organizations without any bureaucratic delays.
Advancements in the space sector can bring about multiple positive effects for Taiwan domestically and internationally. At home, it sends a solid signal to space technology industries that the government is serious about putting policy into practice. Internationally, it would deliver a message to foreign space technology start-ups that Taiwan could be a base for their research and development. Multiple collaborations among local and foreign industries would naturally follow.
By cooperating with New Southbound Policy countries in the space sector, Taiwan can also become a key regional player in space technology education and research. Given that Taiwanese universities have a large pool of students from these countries, which has risen yearly, Taiwan can give students opportunities to pursue careers in space technologies.
By doing so, Taiwan can achieve two goals. In the short term, it will be the key attraction for space technology education in Asia. In the long term, Taiwan would be able to collaborate with some of its alumni, who will return to their countries to work in their space agencies.
With the growing bonhomie between India and Taiwan in several sectors, cooperation and partnership in the space sector would stimulate bilateral relations. Taiwan will gain from ISRO’s space launch facilities known for their cost-effectiveness. It would strengthen the bond between them. The ISRO can gain from obtaining distinctive research and environmental data from the Asia-Pacific region.
As the sky is no longer the limit, space cooperation between Taiwan and New Southbound Policy countries should be accelerated. Taiwan should diversify its partnerships in the space sector rather than solely rely on US facilities. Cooperation with these countries and India would bring innovative approaches to Taiwan’s space industry.
By investing in space technologies, Taiwan can be proud of another technology besides semiconductors, while diversifying its core competence, and strengthening its international standing and competitiveness.
Manoj Kumar Panigrahi is a research fellow at the Taiwan Nextgen Foundation.
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