China wants satellites to closely watch 'every ship' in the South China Sea

Ryan Pickrell
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS John S. McCain conducts a patrol in the South China Sea

U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class James Vazquez/Handout via REUTERS


  • China plans to launch ten surveillance satellites to observe and monitor "every reef and every ship" in the contested South China Sea.
  • The move to create a "CCTV network in space" appears to be an attempt to extend China's surveillance state to enforce "national sovereignty" — meaning Beijing's disputed claims to the South China Sea.
  • News of this plan comes as China continues to face backlash for deploying various weapons systems to occupied territories and threatening foreign ships and planes in the area.

China reportedly wants to extend its surveillance state to the South China Sea by launching satellites to watch "every reef and ship" in the contested sea.

Beginning next year, China will begin launching satellites to monitor the region, as well as enforce "national sovereignty," the South China Morning Post reported Thursday, citing China's state-run China News Service. Six optical satellites, two hyerspectral satellites and two radar satellites will form the Hainan satellite constellation system, creating a real-time "CCTV network in space" controlled by operators in Hainan.

"Each reef and island as well as each vessel in the South China Sea will be under the watch of the ‘space eyes,'" Yang Tianliang, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Sanya Institute of Remote Sensing, told SCMP. "The system will [reinforce] national sovereignty, protection of fisheries, and marine search and rescue."

The ten new surveillance satellites will allow China to keep a close watch on disputed territories, as well as the foreign ships entering the area. The project is expected to be completed by 2021, with three optical satellites going up in the second half of next year.

The satellites, according to Asia Times, would be able to scan the entire 3.5-million-square-kilometer waterway and create an up-to-date satellite image database within a matter of days. Beijing has apparently promised transparency, stressing that it will share information with other countries.

Beijing's efforts to alleviate the concerns of other claimant states are unlikely to result in a sign of relief, as China has been significantly increasing its military presence in the region this year by deploying point-defense systems, jamming technology, anti-ship cruise missiles, and surface-to-air missiles to Chinese occupied territories. China's militarization of the South China Sea resulted in the country's expulsion from the latest iteration of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises by the Pentagon.

In recent weeks, China has come under fire for issuing threats and warnings to foreign ships and planes operating in the South China Sea, an area largely upheld as international waters in a 2016 rebuke to China.  "Philippine military aircraft, I'm warning you again: Leave immediately or you will bear responsibility for all the consequences," a Chinese voice shouted over the radio recently when a Philippine aircraft flew past the Spratlys. China issued a similar warning to a US Navy plane last Friday.

The incidents came just a few months after Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis accused China of "intimidation and coercion" at a security forum in Singapore.

"China has a right to take necessary steps to respond to foreign aircraft and ships that deliberately get close to or make incursions into the air and waters near China’s relevant islands and provocative actions that threaten the security of Chinese personnel stationed there," the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement to Reuters on the matter.

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