China Developing Satellites to Monitor Territory in South China Sea

(Bloomberg) -- China is developing a satellite system that will allow it to closely watch the South China Sea, the China News Service reported, helping it to consolidate control over the disputed waters.

The first of 10 satellites is expected to be launched in the second half of 2019, China News said, citing the Sanya Institute of Remote Sensing, which is heading the project with sponsorship from the government of Hainan, China’s southernmost island province.

Cameras and identification technology on the satellites will allow China to monitor ships sailing in the waters, the news agency reported. Plans to develop the system were announced in December last year.

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, a thriving fishing zone which carries around $3.4 trillion worth of global trade each year. Five other countries including the Philippines and Vietnam also claim parts of the same maritime area.

“The Chinese seem to have moved very fast on this,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Couching all this under an ostensibly civilian looking program that has numerous military and maritime law enforcement applications has far-reaching strategic ramifications for the South China Sea disputes.”

China has reclaimed thousands of acres of land in the waters and built ports, runways and other military infrastructure on seven artificial features it has created.

In June, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned Beijing that it would face consequences in the long term that could persuade it to change track with regard to the South China Sea.

“I believe there are much larger consequences in the future, when nations lose the rapport of their neighbors,” Mattis told the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.