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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

China to Launch 10 Satellites
over South China Sea, 2019-21
Carlyle A. Thayer
December 22, 2017

Q1. What does China hope to achieve by its ambitious plan to launch satellites? What
impact will these satellites have on the situation in the South China Sea?
ANSWER: China will launch three Hainan 1 optical satellites in 2019, three Hainan 1
satellites and two Sanya 1 multispectral remote-sensing satellites in 2020. and two
Sansha 1 synthetic aperture radar satellites in 2021.
China views its claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea as indisputable and its
series of satellite launches are designed to allow China to monitor in greater detail the
land features and adjacent waters, resources, weather and activities of other
countries in the South China Sea in real time. This will speed up China’s reactions to
activities by other countries that Beijing perceives as infringing its interests. Satellite
imagery will allow China to direct its massive fishing fleet and coast guard protectors
to areas that are rich in marine life. And it will enable state companies to gather more
information so they can exploit the natural resource in the South China Sea more
Q2. The situation in the South China Sea seems less tense presently as China and
ASEAN agree to fill-in the framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. In
your assessment, what is China’s purpose in constructing more infrastructure on its
artificial islands in the South China Sea?
ANSWER: In the 1990s when China occupied Mischief Reef its actions were described
as creeping assertiveness. Today, China is engaged in creeping militarization. Like a
good magician China distracts claimant states with its willingness to discuss a code of
conduct with one hand, while it continues to militarize incrementally with the other
China wants to consolidate its presence on its artificial islands while the Duterte
regime is compliant and the Trump Administration is focused on North Korea. China
seeks to entrench its position in the South China Sea as the new normal if it has not
already achieved that objective. A firm Chinese commercial, administrative and
military presence will enable China to bring immediate pressure on any country that
acts contrary to its wishesd. The sheer size of China’s presence can be used to
overpower any single Southeast Asian state if that should be necessary. The bottom
line is that China believes what it says – it is entirely normal for China to build and

develop on land over which it has sovereignty (no matter if that sovereignty is
Q3. How will China’s satellite plan to monitor the South China Sea around the clock
and its construction activities on artificial islands in disputed waters impact on the
process of negotiations on the COC?
ANSWER: China’s actions are incremental. It has already established a physical
presence on seven artificial islands and faced little or no opposition when it did so.
China does not expect any strong push back by the claimant states. China will dangle
the prospect of a negotiated code of conduct to keep ASEAN members states on the
negotiating path.
China will threaten to stop negotiations if any claimant state steps out of line or in
response to actions by the United States and other maritime powers that are viewed
as harming Beijing’s interests. ASEAN has been criticized for “foolish consistency,” that
is for pursuing a COC because they committed themselves to that goal in 2002 when
they agreed to the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. China
easily divide ASEAN as its recent awards to Hun Sen and Duterte illustrate. China will
argue that its satellites serve a common good to obscure the use to which the satellites
actually will be used for.
Q4. What do you think will happen in the South China Sea next year? How will China
act in disputed waters? What will China do in the disrupted waters?
ANSWER: The situation in the South China Sea will continue to remain stable. The new
U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) notes that “China is using economic inducements
and penalties, and influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade
other states to heed its political and security agenda.” The NSS also notes that regional
states “are calling for sustained U.S. leadership in a collective response that upholds a
regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.”
Will President Trump provide such leadership given his priority focus on America First,
nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula and trade imbalances?
The NSS only states that the United States “will reinforce our commitment to freedom
of the seas and the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes in
accordance with international law.” Although the NSS declares that China is a rival,
the South China Sea does not rank high in the Trump Administration’s priorities.
In 2018 China will further consolidate its presence in the South China Sea and push its
Belt and Road Initiative to bring regional states into its orbit.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China to Launch 10 Satellites over South China
Sea, 2019-21,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, December 22, 2017. All
background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.