A illustration of the trajectory of a Chinese earth observation satellite. Photo: Handout
A illustration of the trajectory of a Chinese earth observation satellite. Photo: Handout

China is planning to set up a “CCTV network in space” and will launch satellites to monitor just about all of the South China Sea, with a control room for the network on an island claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

In July 2012, Beijing set up a new prefecture-level city made up of a chain of barren atolls and reefs with a minuscule landmass of about 13 square kilometers to exert jurisdiction over 2.6 million square kilometers of open sea.

The creation of the city of Sansha under southern Hainan province was meant to advance Beijing’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

Now it appears that 10 new navigation and surveillance satellites will help Sansha’s administration keep a close watch over the vast expanse of sea – and everything that passes through it.

Chinese state media has reported that Hainan would start launching satellites, likely from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the province’s east coast, for a “CCTV network in space” to keep watch on the South China Sea.

State media said the satellites would be used for defense and marine rescue purposes and a ground control center would be built on Yongxing Island, also known as Woody Island, that lies in the center of an area of contention between Beijing and its neighbors.

An aerial view of Yongxing Island. Photo: Xinhua

“Every reef and ship” would be put under surveillance to deal with emergencies when the system is up and running.

Citing a memo from the Sanya Institute of Remote Sensing under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the People’s Daily said that work on the first prototype of these earth observation satellites had been underway, with launches scheduled between 2019 and 2021.

These satellites would be able to scan the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea and update a satellite image database “within days,” compared with the current pace of two to three months for each scan using existing satellites.

The newspaper added that on top of high-resolution cameras, the new satellites would be fitted with an “Automatic Identification System,” although no more details were given.

A researcher with the Institute of Remote Sensing also revealed that the satellites could keep tabs on areas between 20 and 30 degrees north and south from the equator. That means large swathes of the Indian Ocean as well as the Malacca Strait could also come under Beijing’s full glare.

It is believed that since the new satellite network is being proposed by local authorities rather than the Chinese military, Beijing hopes the program will not draw too much ire from other nations that also have claims in the South China Sea.

Hainan and Sansha officials pledged that data about passing ships, reefs and water quality would be shared with other countries.