The Chinese military is beginning to deploy a constellation of satellites that will monitor the vast waters of the South China Sea as Beijing moves to expand its control over one of the world’s most lucrative shipping lanes.

As Bloomberg reports, citing Chinese state media, the first of 10 new satellites is scheduled for launch during the second half of next year. China News, which first reported the upcoming launch, cited the Sanya Institute of Remote Sensing, the project lead which is being sponsored by the government of Hainan, China’s southernmost island province.

While China claims all of the South China Sea, several other Asian countries have rival territorial claims. Also, most other countries recognize the vast majority of the South China Sea as international waters.

Bloomberg noted that the satellites will be equipped with cameras and identification technology that allow Beijing to monitor ships moving through the waters, according to the Chinese state media report. Plans to build the constellation were announced in December.

The Chinese government claims more than 80 percent of the body of water, which is rich in fishing and believed to hold vast mineral and fossil fuel deposits. Some $3.4 trillion worth of trade passes through the SCS annually.

Five other countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, all claim a portion of the same maritime area. China and Vietnam fought a brief war in 1979 after Chinese troops invaded as a punitive measure resulting from a long-standing border dispute.

“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, Bloomberg reported.

“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,” he continued.

Analysis: When the Chinese began dredging atolls near the Spratly Islands in the SCS to construct man-made islands several years ago, few grasped the scope of Beijing’s ambitions regarding this highly valuable body of water. China’s intentions became much clearer when it began building mostly military infrastructure on the islands and then fortifying them with radars, surface-to-air missiles, and runways for fighter jets and bombers.

The investment in a constellation of advanced satellites should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Beijing not only intends to dominate the SCS but control it. That, of course, puts Beijing on a collision course with the United States and our allies in the region including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia — and to another extent the Philippines and Vietnam and even India. 

While the U.S. Navy is more than a match for the Chinese navy at present, the latter is rapidly modernizing and posing a greater threat than at any time in modern history. What’s more, China’s new satellite constellation, however, should provide Beijing with tactical advantages it does not currently possess,perhaps even giving the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) the ability to keep American warships at bay should President Xi Jinping move against territorial designs on Taiwan and other holdings by other nations elsewhere in Asia. Certainly, the constellation will allow the PLAN to better track American and allied warships if it works as advertised.

China’s space-based military assets are rapidly expanding. It will become more challenging for the U.S. to operate in this highly contested body of water very soon.

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