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INSIGHT: Playing Our Role as Part of the Asia-Pacific Family
by Elliot Holokauahi Pulham

Growing up in the Asia-Pacific melting pot of Hawai’i, attending college at the home of the East-West Center (University of Hawai’i), and spending part of my early professional life developing commercial air transport service between such distant Pacific Rim locations as Alaska to the North, the U.S. West Coast to the east, Japan and Guam to the west and the Samoas, Tonga and Tahiti to the South, I have always been an optimist about the social, political, and economic potential of this, the most vast and diverse geographic region on the planet. Today, as the space industry matures, it is only natural that global providers of space-based systems, services, and applications turn their eyes and business plans toward the Asia-Pacific region.

But we need to temper our optimism with caution. This is a part of the world that is full of surprises, where cultures are complex, significant capabilities already exist, outsiders are not easily trusted, and relationships trump profit almost every time.
When the British explorer James Cook sailed HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery into Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i, in the winter of 1779, the 180 westerners were greeted warmly by more than a thousand Hawaiians. My great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather, the “High Chief” or “King” Kalani’ōpu’u, extended a royal welcome. He lavished two-thirds of the annual tribute paid him by the local people upon the visiting British. Cook’s ships were fully provisioned, the Hawaiians placing the needs of their guests ahead of their own. Yet, despite such auspicious beginnings, Cook and his men eventually turned upon their hosts — abducting my great-times-eight grandfather in a hostage-taking blunder that would end in Cook’s death and the expulsion of the British from the islands. Having seen no militia and having arrived during a festival season when warring was forbidden, the British assumption, that kidnapping Kalani’ōpu’u was a low-risk tactic, backfired horrifically — loyal warriors skilled in native martial arts swiftly overwhelmed the technically superior British forces.

A low-water-mark in relations between the western world and the peoples of Asia and the Pacific, Cook’s misadventure remains, some 230 years later, an object lesson in how western arrogance, insensitivity, and cultural indifference can lead to diplomatic, economic, political, and business blunders when Europeans or Americans blithely dip their toes into the warm, beckoning waters of the Asia-Pacific region.

To be sure, this is a tantalizing “market.” As described in Wikipedia, “There are many economic centers around the Pacific Rim, such as Auckland, Busan, Brisbane, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Lima, Los Angeles, Manila, Melbourne, Panama City, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Santiago, Seattle, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, Tokyo, Vancouver, and Yokohama. Honolulu is the headquarters of various intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations of the Pacific Rim including the East-West Center and the Institute of Asian Research.

However, while this is a huge market, it is by no means easily approached. “The region has great diversity,” Wikipedia continues, “with the economic dynamism of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore; the technological expertise of Japan, Korea and the Western United States; the natural resources of Australia, Colombia, Canada, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, the Russian Far East and the United States; the human resources of China and Indonesia; the agricultural productivity of Australia, Chile, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the United States among others.

On the one hand, the vast geography of the Pacific Rim seems to make it an automatic candidate for space-based solutions. In meetings convened by the Space Foundation in Honolulu in recent years, a common theme was “the tyranny of distance.” The distance between points A and B in the Pacific can be so enormous that space systems seem the most logical, in some cases the only way, to provide critical information infrastructure. Just because your company may have the perfect answer to some pressing challenge in the region, or just because there are more consumers in China and India than in all of North America and Europe combined, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should pack up your sales kit and head out toward the Pacific.

For one thing, there’s already a tremendous amount of space capability in the region. Here in the west, most people tend not to pay a lot of attention to this huge and dispersed area of the world. And when we do think about the Pacific, the romantic stereotypes of bygone ages still seem to endure.

Take Hawai’i, for starters. (Since we started with Captain Cook, let’s return to the scene of the crime.) Say “Hawai’i,” and most people will conjure up images of romantic sunsets on white sand beaches, snorkeling, luaus, yummy rummy drinks with fruit salad and umbrellas in them. While Hawai’i is, of course, a U.S. state, it is so exotic that many tourists still arrive wondering what the local currency is.

Almost no one, except an astronomer, would start a Hawai’i monologue by talking about the fact that this isolated group of islands in the middle of the Pacific is the leading astronomy and space surveillance location in the world. Many people do know that there are telescopes atop Mauna Kea on the “Big Island” of Hawai’i. Far fewer know that this is the astronomy site of preference for astronomers from all over the world. (Runner-up, by the way, is another Pacific site, in the Andes of South America.) Or that there is a world-class astronomy research community here. Or that the modest little University of Hawai’i-Hilo campus is one of the best places to take up the study of astronomy and astrophysics.

But that’s only for starters. Hop across the Alenuihaha Channel, to Haleakala on Maui. This is the home of the Air Force Maui Optical Station, arguably the most sophisticated optical space surveillance installation in the world. Not only does Haleakala fairly bristle with the various sensors and instruments associated with AMOS, but the unique capabilities of the facility are supported by a rapidly growing, local space industrial base. Renowned for its hospitality, Hawai’i almost never gets the respect it is due for its space economy, which includes not only scientific and military installations, but research universities and nearly 300 private sector companies as well. And, since we hopped the Alenuihaha Channel to get from Hawai’i to Maui, we shouldn’t forget that this 110-mile stretch between the tops of Mauna Kea and Haleakala is where Japan and other nations are testing and developing the technology for microwave transmission of solar-electric power through space.

Did I say Japan? Here’s another highly space-capable location in the Pacific. Need a launch vehicle? Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has got you covered. Need a satellite of almost any kind at all? Once again, the Japanese can deliver world class hardware. Japan has already fielded one of the most robust robotic interplanetary exploration programs in the world. While Americans justifiably take pride in NASA programs such as the Mars rovers, the fact is that, if there is a rival to the rich portfolio of robotic exploration spacecraft managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that rival is the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA. In fact, the 2008 John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr. Award for Space Exploration was presented by the Space Foundation to JAXA for the design, development, launch, and operation of its pioneering fleet of space exploration spacecraft — Suzaku, Akari, Hinode, Hayabusa, and Kaguya. I won’t go into the diverse and intriguing missions of all these spacecraft, but suffice it to say that when materials mined from an asteroid in space are returned soon to earth, it will be by a Japanese spacecraft. And whoever looks most likely to return humans to the Moon can save themselves a lot of R&D by buying high definition imagery and the most detailed optical and SAR mapping data ever acquired from JAXA, not NASA.

Japan, by the way, has recently doubled its space exploration budget, enacted legislation to begin allowing its Defense Forces to own and operate national security satellites, and is entering the U.S.-dominated position-navigation-timing business with a Japan-specific satellite PNT system of its own design and manufacture. Japan’s plans to send humans to the Moon are extremely credible, given not only the Japanese launch capability, but its human-rated vehicle capabilities, as impressively demonstrated with the addition of the KIBO experiment module to the International Space Station.

Nor is Japan alone in the Pacific in its lunar ambitions. China and India have both the ambition and the means.

Let’s consider India first. Here is a country which already has world-class satellite design and manufacturing capabilities. In fact, until relatively recently, India held the global lead in commercial remote-sensing satellite technology. Along the way to becoming world-class satellite manufacturers, India, through ISRO (India Space Research Organization) also developed highly capable orbital launch capabilities. Largely unnoticed in the west, ISRO quietly but successfully launched an orbital re-entry testbed spacecraft, which demonstrated the ability to manage the thermal and aerodynamic challenges of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. India, too, recently announced a doubling of the nation’s space research and development budget.

Then there is China . . . the most populous nation on earth and the market that everyone would like to crack. Only — they don’t especially need our help.

Launchers? Forget about it. There are eight different models in the Long March family alone, and while Russia (another Pacific nation) still leads in worldwide commercial space launches each year, the fact that U.S. payloads are banned from Chinese rockets creates a huge market distortion. China, too, has world class satellite design, manufacture, launch, and operation capability and has space partnerships of various sorts with more than 130 nations around the world.

When the ninth and newest Long March model comes out, China alone will have the capability of putting 25 tons of payload into trans-lunar injection. And in about two years time, when the U.S. space shuttle fleet retires, only two nations on the planet will have the ability to launch humans into space — the Asia-Pacific nations of China and Russia.

Regrettably, editorial space doesn’t permit me to go on and on about the many other space programs, from fledgling to sophisticated, that abound in the Asia-Pacific region. But from Tonga to Malaysia, Singapore to South Korea — the Asia-Pacific Region is rich in both emerging and mature space capability.

By no means does that mean that western space operators should give up on the Asia-Pacific marketplace. The fact is that this region is home to the fastest growing economies and populations on the planet. There is plenty of room to develop successful partnerships and profitable business ventures. There is no way for domestic production in the Asia-Pacific region to keep up with consumer demand. But do be aware that partnerships are critical. Be mindful of our old friend Captain Cook!

When the Space Foundation recently hosted the U.S. visit of a high level delegation representing the China Manned Space Flight Program, a lot of people asked me how we pulled that off. After all, China has only sent high level space leaders to the U.S. on two occasions since joining the very exclusive human space flight club — and both of those visits were carried out under the auspices of the Space Foundation. The reason is not that we’re geniuses — the reason is we are patient and sensitive to cultural issues. We have been working with the Chinese space community for more than a decade. When we met with the Chinese leadership in Colorado Springs to start mapping out next steps in fostering U.S.-China relationships in space, we did so as old friends.

This, too, is how I think any western space enterprise can be successful in the Asia-Pacific region. By starting softly and quietly, and putting relationships first. Understand the cultures, and you will understand why business models can’t simply be transplanted from the U.S. to India, or from Europe to China. Understand the politics, and you’ll understand that, just as in the west, governments and the people they govern are not necessarily perfect reflections of one another.

Growing up in the crossroads of the Pacific during the rebirth of “Pacific Age” thinking, I am extremely optimistic that the best is yet to come in this part of the world, and that there will be a role for the west to play — especially the Americas, which are by definition part of the Pacific. So long as we are willing to faithfully play our role as part of the Pacific family, and not just sail onto the shores and start barking instructions, a warm welcome, and limitless opportunity, awaits.

About the author Elliot Holokauahi Pulham is the CEO of the Space Foundation