India to build satellite tracking station in Vietnam that offers eye on China
India will set up a satellite tracking and imaging center in southern Vietnam that will give Hanoi access to pictures from Indian earth observation satellites that cover the region, including China and the South China Sea, Indian officials said in January 2016.
The move, which could irritate Beijing, deepens ties between India and Vietnam, both of which have long-running territorial disputes with China.
While billed as a civilian facility — earth observation satellites have agricultural, scientific and environmental applications — security experts said improved imaging technology meant the pictures could also be used for military purposes.
Hanoi especially has been looking for advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies as tensions rise with China over the disputed South China Sea, they said.
“In military terms, this move could be quite significant,” said Collin Koh, a marine security expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “It looks like a win-win for both sides, filling significant holes for the Vietnamese and expanding the range for the Indians.”
The state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will fund and set up the satellite tracking and data reception center in Ho Chi Minh City to monitor Indian satellite launches, the Indian officials said. Indian media put the cost at about U.S. $23 million.
India, whose 54-year-old space program is accelerating, with one satellite launch scheduled every month, has ground stations in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Brunei, Biak in eastern Indonesia and Mauritius that track its satellites in the initial stages of flight.
The Vietnam facility will bolster those capabilities, said Deviprasad Karnik, an ISRO spokesman.
Unlike the other overseas stations, the facility will also be equipped to receive images from India’s earth observation satellites that Vietnam can use in return for granting India the tracking site, said an Indian government official connected with the space program.
Chinese coastal naval bases, the operations of its Coast Guard and Navy, and its new man-made islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea would be targets of Vietnamese interest, security experts said.
Another Indian official said New Delhi would also have access to the imagery.
India has 11 earth observation satellites in orbit, offering pictures with differing resolutions and areas, the ISRO said.
Indian officials had no time frame for when the center would be operational.
“This is at the beginning stages. We are still in dialogue with Vietnamese authorities,” said Karnik.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing hoped the facility “will be able to make a positive contribution to pushing forward relevant cooperation in the region.” China’s Defense Ministry said the proposed tracking station wasn’t a military issue.
Vietnam launched its first earth observation satellite in 2013, but Koh said it was not thought to produce particularly high-resolution images.
Security experts said Vietnam would likely seek real-time access to images from the Indian satellites as well as training in imagery analysis, a specialized intelligence field.
“The advance of technology means the lines are blurring between civilian and military satellites,” said Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired naval intelligence analyst with Britain’s Defense Ministry. “In some cases, the imagery from a modern civilian satellite is good enough for military use.”
Sophisticated military reconnaissance satellites can be used to capture military signals and communications, as well as detailed photographs of objects on land, capturing detail to less than a meter, Koh and other experts said.
The tracking station will be the first such foreign facility in Vietnam and follows other agreements between Hanoi and New Delhi that have cemented security ties.