In Missing Airliner's Wake, China Aims for 50 More Spy Satellites

The question is, is Beijing using MH370 as leverage for a global satellite network?

Image: Creative Commons

Shortly after Malaysia Flight 370 went down, China demanded that Malaysia turn over satellite data that could help pinpoint the possible crash radius. Today, the South China Morning Post reported that China is considering building a network of 50 surveillance satellites. The goal is to create a global monitoring network to rival US and European capabilities. 

"If we had a global monitoring network today, we wouldn't be searching in the dark. We would have a much greater chance to find the plane and trace it to its final position," said Professor and researcher Chi Tianhe of 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."

Sources close to the Chinese Academy of Engineering told the South China Morning Post that after Malaysia Flight 370 went missing, senior scientists submitted a letter to state leaders asking them to launch the global monitoring network. Though expensive to build, if state leaders approve the mammoth undertaking, China could have 50 surveillance satellites in orbit in the next several years. 

While no one would deny China's motivation, namely that a global surveillance system would benefit future search efforts and also space research, this seems to be a perfect pretext for China to play strategic catch-up in the realm of information awareness. The US is the undisputed leader as far as the number of satellites in orbit go, followed closely by Europe. Though many US satellites are designed for commercial purposes, a number of others have military applications. On a purely strategic level, this bothers China's leaders.

Sure, China isn't shy about anything it does. It's heavily promoted its home-grown GPS network, Beidou, which envisions 30 navigation satellites in orbit by 2020. But launching dozens of spy satellites in a few years' time would draw a lot of international attention. So the question is, is Beijing using MH370 as leverage for a global satellite network? 

Not explicitly, no. But the hunt for MH370 does allows China to appear rational outside of a military context in its reported desire to helm a lot more satellites in the near future. Greenlighting such a system would give China the bandwidth to establish its own military satellite presence, bringing dozens of new nodes into the already considerable matrix of unrelenting eyes in the sky.

It's probably inevitable that Chinese surveillance indeed eventually does go global. Perhaps Beijing should be open about this ambition instead of cloaking it in the mystery and terror of MH370. Like Russia's actions with Crimea and Ukraine, it would seem that China learned a great deal from post-9/11 America. To get what you want in international affairs, sometimes you just have to exploit tragedy and play jazz with the truth.