“China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System will be completed next year, a timing that comes just as Kiribati switched its diplomatic allegiance (to the PRC from Taiwan). This is likely just the beginning of China’s competitive scramble for the control of space from the Pacific.”
- Oddis Tsai (蔡榮峰), policy analyst
Division of National Defense Resources and Industries (國防資源與產業研究所)
Beyond the dark side of the moon
Nowhere is more coveted in the so-called parking lot above the Earth as the spot where a satellite keeps the same pace as our planet’s rotation. Directly above the equator, this is called the geostationary orbit and these slots are prized and scarce. Here, a military ground base doesn’t have to swivel its space-tracking antenna to follow a satellite and the eyes in the sky have a constant view of the same area. Less need for maneuvering above and below can mean less chances for data gaps.
The atolls that make up Kiribati straddle the equator, making it a prime location in the race for space and the deployment of equipment that can impact dual-use telecommunications and cyber technologies. In 2003, the PRC forced itself to shut such a ground station it had been developing there when Kiribati recognized Taiwan.
Sixteen years later, this and other security implications are emerging in the aftermath of the diplomatic switch by Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in September to the PRC from Taiwan. The moves effectively drew a line in the sand – or water in this case – to cut by north vs south the security sphere of influence of the United States in the South Pacific, observes Oddis Tsai (蔡榮峰), a policy analyst in the Division of National Defense Resources and Industries (國防資源與產業研究所) in the October 2019 edition of the Defense Situation Monthly (國防情勢月報).
Going back to World War II, the South Pacific has been a geo-strategic location for military maneuvers. In the current security context, the South Pacific is a focus in the competition for traditional natural resources. But what should not be overlooked is the PRC’s capability of building artificial islands (a precedent is its militarization of the South China Sea) and its hybrid warfare strategy. This means the access and usage of space high above are arguably as important to consider now as those of the land and waters below.
Taiwan, given its strategic location in the first island chain, pays close attention to the geographical changes of the second and third island chains, to try to detect the “strategic signals hidden beneath the diplomatic turns,” writes Tsai. “The South Pacific has been seen as a safe channel of passage for American troops into Asia, but the distances between the islands dotting the maritime region are far apart, so whether the islands are infiltrated by potential revisionist countries will affect the US military projection capability,” he writes.
Tsai expects the PRC to intensify its pressure on Palau and the Marshall Islands – noteworthy is the US Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site sits in the Marshall’s Kwajalein Atoll – ahead of the renewal of their Compacts of Free Association (COFAs), which are up in 2023 and 2024, respectively.
The following depicts the PRC vs United States influence in the South Pacific illustrated by Tsai: