Beijing leads the initiative of the BRICS countries and Washington leads that of the QUAD nations, both to monitor the Indo-Pacific from space

China speeds up the activation of a cooperative satellite network with Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa

PHOTO/AP - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the presidents of China, Russia and Brazil, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, have said yes to the BRICS Joint Space Cooperation Committee

China has taken just a few hours to respond in its own way to the communiqué issued on 24 May by the White House, in which the leaders of the four QUAD countries - Australia, the United States, Japan and India - expressed their commitment to monitor from space "the stability and prosperity of our oceans".

The statement signed by US President Joe Biden, India's Narendra Modi and the prime ministers of Australia and Japan, Anthony Albanese and Fumio Kishida, respectively, does not indict China, but leaves no room for doubt. It endorses the EU's Indo-Pacific Cooperation Strategy, which increases Brussels' engagement in the region, upholds the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, rules-based maritime order and freedom of navigation and overflight 'including in the East and South China Seas'.

The consensus text also reflects QUAD's "strong opposition" to any "coercive, provocative or unilateral action to change the status quo, increase tensions in the area, militarisation of the disputed issues and efforts by any country to disrupt resource exploitation activities on the high seas", referring to illegal fishing and suspicious maritime activities.

Cinco satélites de observación en los espectros óptico visible e infrarrojo darán vida a la primera constelación espacial que los BRICS han puesto en marcha, dos de ellos de China y uno por parte de Brasil, Rusia y China

The day after the QUAD note, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, in response to a journalist's question, claimed that "certain countries see China through polarised lenses and build small cliques that fuel bloc-to-bloc confrontation". At the same time, the first teleconference of the newly established BRICS Joint Space Cooperation Committee, the new structure that will manage the exchange of geospatial data provided by the electro-optical satellites that Russia, India, Brazil and China have federated into a virtual constellation, took place.

The initiative comes from President Xi Jinping through his China National Space Administration (CNSA), which since October 2016 has been clearing the ground to agree on a legal framework for sharing space data in the visible and infrared spectra among the countries that call themselves BRICS, an acronym that encompasses Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

PHOTO/CNSA - Zhang Kejian, el todopoderoso presidente de la Administración Nacional del Espacio de China (CNSA), es sobre quien el líder chino Xi Jinping ha descargado la responsabilidad de hacer realidad el primer paso de la constelación BRICS
A partnership of five countries on three continents

The purpose of China's project is twofold. On the one hand, to enhance the socio-economic development of the five nations and to challenge the global institutional and commercial influence and dominance of Washington and its industry. The terms of reference of the agreement call for the five space agencies to "work together in the sharing and efficient utilisation of satellite data" to improve environmental protection, disaster prevention and mitigation, and the fight against climate change. 

The constellation they have formed is virtual, because the satellites associated with the project are owned and controlled by the space agency of each BRICS nation. It is the first phase of an initiative that includes consolidating working groups and expert commissions in the fields of science, applications and also commercial space cooperation.

The second step is much more far-reaching. It aims to constitute a real constellation governed by the Joint Committee, where satellites are the result of joint technological and investment projects, a sort of pseudo BRICS space agency, which is much, much more difficult to achieve given the actors involved. There is nothing to prevent cooperation on the peaceful use of outer space from leading in the long run to an agreement on its use for defensive purposes.

PHOTO/INPE - El satélite de observación brasileño CBERS-4 es el resultado de un proyecto conjunto con China. De una resolución de unos 2 metros y 1,9 toneladas de peso, fue puesto en órbita a una altura de 773 kilómetros desde China en diciembre de 2014

But under very different political and economic regimes, what favours the partnership between a Latin American nation (Brazil), two Asian nations (China and India), a Eurasian nation (Russia) and an African nation (South Africa) is as much what might make it inoperative in the future. Contributing to this are the serious events unleashed just over 100 days ago in Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin and barely two weeks before the fourteenth annual BRICS summit, scheduled for 24 June in Beijing.

A clear case of fragility is that of India, which is part of the BRICS group led by Beijing in its manifest geostrategic rivalry with Washington, while in coalition with the US-sponsored QUAD group to curb China's expansion. Added to this are the historic territorial disputes between Beijing and New Delhi, which place India in a complex situation that, at least so far, it has managed to overcome.

PHOTO/Japan Prime Minister Press Office - La declaración del líder australiano Anthony Albanese, el norteamericano Joe Biden, el indio Narendra Modi y el japonés Fumio Kishida expresa su voluntad de vigilar desde el espacio la estabilidad en mares y océanos
Satellites and infrastructure of the first BRICS space project

The inconsistency that exists within BRICS has led Xi Jinping, who holds the annual rotating presidency, to invite the leaders of Egypt, Kenya, Mexico, Thailand, Tajikistan and Argentina to the summit, where the tenant of the Casa Rosada, Alberto Fernández, has already confirmed his presence. China is counting on the New Development Bank (NDB), created in 2015 under the umbrella of its financial potential. Its headquarters are in Shanghai and its shareholding has been extended to include the Emirates, Uruguay and Bangladesh.

What will happen to the BRICS virtual constellation? The participation of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) will be realised with the CBERS-4, the result of a joint Sino-Brazilian project. Weighing 1.9 tonnes and with a resolution of around 2 metres, the platform was launched in December 2014 and is at an altitude of 773 kilometres. The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) is contributing one of its six small high-resolution satellites from the Kanopus family - the V1, weighing just 475 kilograms - which was launched in July 2012 at an altitude of 500 kilometres. 

PHOTO/ISRO - Los satélites de India viajan desde el centro espacial Satish Dhawan, en la costa del golfo de Bengala, hasta su posición orbital a bordo de los lanzadores de fabricación nacional PSLV (en imagen) o GSLV

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is committing the 1.2-tonne Resourcesat-2, deployed in April 2011 at an altitude of 820 kilometres. China's CNSA is present with two satellites. One of the four satellites in the Gaofen-1 series and one of the three in the Ziyuan 3 family, the christened 02. The Gaofen-1 chosen appears to be the first of the lot, weighing 800 kilos, with a resolution of 8 metres and in space since April 2013. In contrast, the Ziyuan 3/02 was fired in May 2016, weighs 2.3 tonnes and has a resolution of about 2 metres. 

The Chinese contribution fills the gap for South Africa, whose national space agency, or SANSA - an acronym for South African National Space Agency - was founded in 2008 and does not yet have an observation vehicle. Where the government in Pretoria does contribute its capabilities is in the ground infrastructure for the tracking of the five constellation spacecraft. 

PHOTO/CAST - Tras la crítica soterrada de los socios del QUAD, los máximos dirigentes de las agencias espaciales de los países BRICS (en imagen) celebraron una teleconferencia que daba el espaldarazo al Comité Conjunto de Cooperación Espacial

South Africa provides the antennas at its Hartebeesthoek station, located some 70 kilometres south of Johannesburg. Brazil has its station in Cuiaba, in the state of Mato Grosso, and India its National Remote Sensing Centre in Hyderabad. Russia has a vast network of monitoring stations and cooperates with the one in Moscow, while China cooperates with all its vast network of centres, especially the one in Ganya.