China Launches New Satellite While AUKUS Raises Stakes

An eventful week in the Indo-Pacific
April 8, 2022 Updated: April 8, 2022

News Analysis

China launched a new satellite designed for “Earth observation” on April 7.

According to Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-controlled media, the Gaofen-3-03 will coordinate with two similar satellites currently in orbit, and subsequently enhance Beijing’s ability to produce synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images.

The regime claims that these images will enable the country to monitor the underwater marine environment in China’s territorial waters more accurately. This will ostensibly allow the CCP to identify and pre-empt potential climate and natural disasters emergencies.

A more intentional reading of these reports, however, reveals an alarming conclusion. Beneath the altruistic verbiage about environmental protection and calamity prevention, it is easier to interpret the real implications of China’s capacity for enhanced satellite imaging.

The ability to “[provide] operational application data support for China’s marine development” will equate to enhanced imaging capabilities for the PLA Navy to extend its influence into disputed territories. This is especially true of the island-building initiatives that Beijing has undergone in the South China Sea since 2014.

Another released statement by state-run media Xinhua states that the enhanced imaging capability provided by the new satellite launch will “help to safeguard maritime rights and interests.” Constructed islands on various geographic features, such as rocky outcrops and reefs, allow Beijing to bolster its claim over disputed waters in the region.

By claiming that the artificial landmasses constitute an extension of Chinese territorial sovereignty, the regime can then argue that those same “maritime rights and interests” actually encompass much more than they otherwise would. Consider that most of the islands are about 1,000 miles south of China’s southernmost tip on Hainan Island.

A report from 2017 states that China has constructed over 3,200 acres of new “land.” The most notable are artificial island chains designed to station troops among the Spratly Islands, located between Brunei and Vietnam. This includes airstrips for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft on the Fiery Cross Reef.

There have been rumors that some of these islands are not in the best condition due to foundation damage and a disadvantageous strategic location regarding the Chinese mainland.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese structures and buildings at the man-made island on Johnson reef at the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea on March 20, 2022. (Aaron Favila/AP Photo)

However, other countries in the region that lay claim to the waters are certainly not ready to let their guard down. In late March 2022, new reports confirmed that China has successfully militarized at least three of the several islands it built in the disputed area.

This provides new capabilities for “anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets,” according to a top U.S. military commander.

China’s launch of the new satellite comes at a time of heightened tension in the region. The United States has recently announced a $95 billion boost to Taiwan’s air defense. This will support the Patriot Air Defense System that Taipei currently operates and boost its “capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen homeland defense,” stated the U.S. Pentagon in a message to Congress.

This arms sale—in which Raytheon was the prime defense contractor—is the third arms sale between Taiwan and the Biden administration.

South Korea has additionally cited its desire for U.S. nuclear deterrence. While this request aims to counter nuclear-armed communist North Korea, Seoul also faces the threat of nuclear-armed communist China. The two are inextricable in South Korea’s security analysis.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a virtual press conference on national security with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the White House in Washington on Sept. 15, 2021. The three leaders announced the AUKUS defense partnership between their countries. (Brendan Smialkowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps the most pressing news for Beijing over the past week, however, is the announcement by the AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) military alliance that it will begin developing hypersonic missiles.

The three will plan to “build a fleet of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian military as part of a security effort in the Indo-Pacific region,” The Epoch Times reported.

The analysis initially states that the alliance has “made progress developing quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, and undersea capabilities.”

Beijing’s drive for technological innovation in land and sea mapping is taking place in the context of the ongoing competition for enhanced military capabilities in the South China Sea.

The CCP is not touting its increased capacity for in-depth satellite image-based analysis because it wants to protect the ecological environment in the region; instead, it is explicitly stating that its increased ability to produce and utilize SARs has significant strategic ramifications for any would-be challengers to its territorial claims.

As the United States continues to commit significant financial and material assets (not to mention human capital) to the region, it must remain aware of the advances that China is making.

Washington has placed a large bet on its ability to promote technological innovation and advanced weapons development. Beijing seems to be trying to match it with the launch of its new satellite.

The question remains: are we witnessing the machinations of a new Indo-Pacific arms race?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Dominick Sansone is a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. He focuses on Russia-China relations and U.S. foreign policy.