‘Frustrated’ China mulls building 50 satellites following failure to find MH370, says daily

Frustrated over the failure to locate the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Beijing is mulling the setting up a global monitoring network, the South China Morning Post reported today.

The Hong Kong daily reported that Beijing was considering building more than 50 orbiting probes so that it could monitor the entire planet.

Chinese researchers said if China were to increase its network of surveillance and observation satellites, it would be on a par or larger than the United States.

The report said Beijing has been frustrated by the failure to locate MH370 despite 21 days of search operations.

Professor Chi Tianhe told SCMP that if China had a global monitoring network today, the 26 nations involved in the search operations for the missing Boeing 777-200ER (9M-MRO) would not be searching in the dark.

"We would have a much greater chance of finding MH370 and tracing it to its final position," said Chi, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth.

"The plan is being drafted to expand our regional monitoring capability to global coverage," Chi told SCMP.

The number of Chinese surveillance and observation satellites remained a state secret, but Chi estimated that the United States operated about 50 similar satellites, the report said.

It said a satellite costs about 400 million yuan (RM210 million) to build, according to estimates from experts in the mainland's space industry.

To build 50 such satellites would cost at least 20 billion yuan (RM10.5 billion).

Professor Liu Yu told SCMP that the project would be a game changer for China if approved by Beijing.

"China's ability to carry out observation from space would be altered tremendously," said Liu, a remote-sensing expert at Peking University's school of earth and space sciences.

"International earth-observation services today are dominated by the US and Europe, but if China launches more than 50 satellites for this purpose, the whole landscape will be changed," Liu said.

"The more Chinese satellites there are in space, the easier our work becomes," Liu told SCMP.

"By analysing data from numerous satellites positioned at different locations and equipped with different sensors, we can understand much better an area of interest," he said.

However, the ambitious plans are likely to rattle many Asian countries and fuel suspicion of Beijing’s intentions, as a few countries are locked in territorial disputes with China.

On March 11, Al Jazeera reported that while it was true that the South China Sea disputes had been a permanent feature of regional affairs for some decades, recent events have been particularly disconcerting.

Since 2009, China has stepped up its paramilitary patrols in the area, with growing reports of Chinese surveillance vessels "harassing", among others, Filipino and Vietnamese ships and fishermen, the report said.

In mid-2012, the Philippines and China came dangerously close to an armed conflict over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, Al Jazeera said.

Equipped with superior military hardware, and backed by intensive diplomatic pressure, China eventually managed to outmanoeuvre the Philippines by gaining control of the disputed shoal.

By mid-2013, China pushed the envelope even further, with Chinese paramilitary vessels allegedly aiming to overrun Philippine military fortifications in the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

The Second Thomas Shoal is close to the hydrocarbon-rich areas off the coast of the Philippine province of Palawan.

The balance of forces on the ground has rapidly shifted in China's favour.

The report said China resilient economy has helped it accelerate its military spending, with a greater focus on its naval capabilities.

The ultimate aim, many analysts claim, was to make China a pre-eminent naval power in Asia – eventually, challenging the US naval hegemony in the Pacific theatre, the report said.

In response, the report said Southeast Asian states have accelerated their efforts at establishing a legally binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea.

It is hoped the CoC will dissuade China from reinforcing its paramilitary fortifications and surveillance patrols across the contested areas.

There have also been parallel efforts by the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore to increase American military presence in Southeast Asia to hedge against China's territorial assertiveness.

However, Al Jazeera reported that many Asean members have been reluctant to criticise China over the South China Sea disputes.

China is Asean's largest trading partner and Asia's biggest economy. – March 30, 2014.