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Series of Satellite Launches Will Bolster Chinese Control of Disputed Sea

Long March-7 rocket carrying Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft lifts off from the launching pad in Wenchang, Hainan province, China, April 20, 2017.

A Chinese province’s plan to launch 10 satellites over a widely disputed sea starting next year will help guide China to prime natural resources and enable fast reaction to any foreign ship movement, boosting China’s lead over five other Asian governments.

The island province of Hainan’s Sanyan Institute of Remote Sensing intends to launch the satellites from 2019 to 2021, the official Xinhua News Agency reported in December. The launches, it says, will help with “remote sensing coverage” over the contested South China Sea and pick up images “round-the-clock.”

Hainan Island, China
Hainan Island, China

China ultimately hopes to find prime fisheries in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea before someone else does, analysts say. It also may use the satellites to spot and quickly follow up whatever other countries do at sea, they suggest. Help for the military looms as another possibility.

China claims about 90 percent of the sea based on historical records.

“Probably it wants to make sure that they have so-called situation awareness in the region or better situation awareness,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “They can monitor the activities of fishing transportation, energy transportation or even military activities.”

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea, pitting them against China. The Southeast Asian countries have grown warier of China, the most technologically and militarily advanced claimant, since 2010 as it steps up land reclamation of small islets for defense purposes.

South China Sea Territorial Claims
South China Sea Territorial Claims

Bolstering a technological lead

Of the satellites to be deployed from Hainan province, six are optical satellites that would use light in free space to send data wirelessly to telecommunication or computer networks. Two are hyperspectral satellites, which can analyze each pixel in a complex image to find objects or detect processes. The last two are synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellites that normally can compose three-dimensional images of landscapes.

India planned in 2016 to offer Vietnam a imaging facility that would allow access to pictures from Indian observation satellites. Experts say the other South China Sea claimants have nothing that approximates China’s plan.

China already leads other claimants in maritime technology. Over the past year it has rolled out a large deep-sea dredging vessel useful for land reclamation and put the final touches on a bathyscaphe deep ocean probe.

Chinese scientists are working separately on an underwater observation network for the sea where the Southeast Asian claimants are exploring for oil and natural gas reserves.

“That’s the new kind of warfare in (the) 21st century, by technology,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, Southeast Asia-specialized fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“Certainly they want to control the South China Sea as part of their strategic rivalry with the U.S. That has always been the priority strategy for the Chinese,” he said.

Multiple uses

The director of the institute in Hainan province, as quoted by Xinhua, said that the satellites would help with emergency responses at sea and offer “scientific support” for Beijing’s economic outreach to Southeast Asia. China calls that initiative the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

“I’d say that is the most benevolent interpretation of the potential use of the satellites themselves,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in the United States.

“Other countries will worry that once the surveillance is established, there is no guarantee that China will not use them for military or coercive purposes,” Sun said. “But the move and the justification is consistent with the Chinese pattern of using scientific and civilian justification to strengthen Chinese control of the South China Sea.”

The satellites proposed by China can easily track fisheries as big catches grow harder to find, analysts say.

Millions of tons of fish and 20 to 50 percent of potential revenues have been lost in the South China Sea, the conservation group World Wildlife Fund said in 2015. Overfishing, oil leaks from commercial ships and reclamation work have hurt those populations.

Satellites should be able as well to catch images of construction on the sea’s roughly 500 islets, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. The Southeast Asian countries, as well as nearby Taiwan, also a claimant, control many of the islands. China claims all as its own.

Some satellites can coordinate military operations and pick out submarines that would otherwise stay hidden.

“It gives China, with its communications that are already established, an ability to respond immediately, very, very quickly to anything that threatens its interests or wants to take actions about,” Thayer said. “In the Western world, some of the most highly classified and prized intelligence information is U.S. spatial imagery that comes through.”