China establishes ground stations for BeiDou satellite system on disputed South China Sea reefs

Source: CCTV

20th September 2023 – (Beijing) According to Chinese state television, China has constructed two ground stations for its BeiDou satellite system on reefs in the disputed South China Sea. The stations, linked to China’s land-based ship automatic identification system (AIS), have been installed at lighthouses situated on North Reef and Bombay Reef in the Paracel Islands. These islands are also claimed by Vietnam and Taipei, adding to the already complex territorial disputes in the region.

Utilising the BeiDou satellite network, which was completed in 2020 as a rival to the US global positioning system (GPS), the ground stations enable the tracking and transmission of signals to locate vessels, as reported by state broadcaster CCTV on Tuesday.

The CCTV report stated that the ground stations commenced operations on Friday and would address the issue of a blind spot in China’s shore-based ship AIS in the waters surrounding the Paracels, according to the Maritime Safety Administration. The report further emphasized that the stations would significantly contribute to monitoring ships in the area, promoting ecological protection of the islands and reefs of Sansha, and providing safer and more reliable navigational guidance for ships traversing the South China Sea.

China’s maritime administration mandates that all ships within its jurisdiction must be equipped with an AIS transponder and keep the signal active at all times. This requirement allows authorities and other vessels to identify and track ships effectively.

The installation of these ground stations marks China’s efforts to bolster its maritime surveillance capabilities and assert control over the disputed waters. The move is part of Beijing’s broader strategy to strengthen its presence in the South China Sea, a region of immense strategic importance due to its abundant resources and status as one of the world’s busiest waterways.

Sansha, established by Beijing in 2012, serves as the municipality governing most of the South China Sea. It falls within the expansive territorial claim known as the “nine-dash line,” encompassing the Paracel and Spratly Islands, as well as Macclesfield Bank. However, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taipei all have overlapping claims to parts of this resource-rich area, leading to ongoing tensions and disputes.

The newly established ground stations have been strategically positioned in North Reef, the northernmost part of the Paracels, and Bombay Reef in the southeastern region of the archipelago. These locations are in close proximity to an international sea route traversing the central area of the South China Sea. Notably, the stations are situated amidst several sensitive Chinese installations, including the Sansha headquarters and artificial islands housing naval and airbases. Consequently, confrontations between the People’s Liberation Army and the US Navy often occur in these waters during “freedom of navigation operations” conducted by the US.

While BeiDou, similar to GPS, does not require ground stations for general navigation or positioning services, the presence of nearby ground stations significantly enhances accuracy, particularly for military purposes. This development underscores China’s intent to fortify its military capabilities and maintain a dominant presence in the South China Sea.