The South China Sea, one of the most heavily trafficked waterways on the planet, has been the site of heightening tensions between China and other Pacific powers in recent years, as China’s claims of sovereignty have grown to encompass the majority of the region, stretching thousands of miles from Chinese shores. In order to bolster their claims, China has set about fortifying and even building islands that provide greater access to the massive expanse of water for their military and starting next year, China will begin deploying a constellation of satellites purpose-built for continuous observation of the entire seaway.

China’s plan involved launching six optical satellites, two hyperspectral satellites and two radar satellites that together will be known as the Hainan satellite constellation system. Combined, they’ll create what Chinese outlets have referred to as something akin to a “CCTV network in space,” or what effectively amounts to continuous surveillance over the entire South China Sea, ensuring China is aware of any and all commercial and naval activity within its scope. It’s important to note that while China continues to develop new ways to enforce their “national sovereignty” over the sea, many other nations, including the United States, do not recognize China’s claims as valid, but rather, are seen as a violation of international norms and even law.

This map shows the extent of China’s new claims over the waterway in red, along with the competing claims of other nations within the region. As you can see, China’s claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea extends significantly south of their own borders. | Flickr

“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 the South China Morning Post of the new endeavor. “The system will [reinforce] national sovereignty, protection of fisheries, and marine search and rescue.”

The first of the satellites will be launched late next year, and once the full constellation is in place, China will be able to actively monitory more than 2 million square miles of the South China Sea, which is not only an important Naval waterway for Pacific powers like the United States and Australia but also sees nearly a third of all global commerce.

Concerns persist that China may use their claims of sovereignty over the waterway as economic leverage in international trade. Some experts, like the Japan Chair and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Michael Green, have opined that China could potentially disrupt commercial trade through the South China Sea as a diplomatic weapon, threatening the financial well being of nations that rely on the trade route like the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Australia. However, China also relies on a great deal of this trade for its own economic stability, so questions remain regarding just how effectively China could use its attempts to control the waterway strategic in the economic theater.

The announcement of this new satellite constellation also shines a light on the murky terminology employed by nations when it comes to defense endeavors based in space. China, like Russia, already has a space-specific military branch, but this endeavor was instead mounted under the banner of non-military agencies despite its clear defense implications.

“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.”

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