A new satellite will help China, with its increasingly aggressive flotilla of ships and ready-to-scramble fighter jets, to monitor and cover the troubled waters of the South China Sea.
The Gaofen 3 satellite, launched on Wednesday, is equipped with a radar system that captures images from space with a resolution down to 1 metre, according to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, the body that oversees China's space programmes.
“The satellite will play an important role in monitoring the marine environment, islands and reefs, and ships and oil rigs,” Xu Fuxiang, head of the Gaofen 3 project, told China.org.
China has a coastline of 32,000 km, 380,000 sq km of territorial seas and more than 6,500 islands that have an area of at least 500 square meters.
Satellites like Gaofen 3, according to Xu, will be “very useful in safeguarding the country's maritime rights and interests”.
In a report on the launch, the official Xinhua news agency said:“As China's first SAR (synthetic aperture radar) imaging satellite that is accurate to one meter in distance, it covers the globe with an all-weather, 24-hour observation service and will be used for disaster warning, weather forecasting, water resource assessments, and the protection of maritime rights.”
China has overlapping claims with several countries – including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia - over the ownership of islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
The launch of the new satellite coincides with China adopting an aggressive posture on the South China Sea following an international tribunal‘s ruling in July that Beijing doesn’t have historical rights over the region.
The tribunal handed the Philippines, which had petitioned the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over the dispute with China, a victory.
New satellite imagery released by Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies earlier this week showed China had built new hangars on the Spratly/Nansha islands, indicating further militarisation of the region.
China has maintained an aggressive posture on the South China Sea since the tribunal’s verdict, which ruled it had violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines and caused harm to the coral reef environment.
Beijing has dismissed Manila’s claims on the Nansha islands. “The Philippines' territorial claim over part of Nansha Qundao is groundless from the perspectives of either history or international law,” a government document said after the verdict.