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China installs satellite network on disputed reefs as ASEAN launches drills

An Indonesian naval cadet uses binoculars in the South China Sea, Oct. 1, 2021. (File photo by Reuters)

China has built two ground stations for its BeiDou satellite system on disputed South China Sea reefs, according to state media.

The stations, connected to China's land-based ship automatic identification system (AIS), are installed at lighthouses located on North Reef and Bombay Reef in the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taipei.

They use the BeiDou satellite network - completed in 2020 as a rival to the US global positioning system (GPS) - to locate the vessels and transmit signals, state broadcaster CCTV reported on Tuesday.

According to CCTV, the ground stations started operating on Friday.

The two ground stations "solve the problem of a blind spot in the country's shore-based ship AIS in the waters around the Paracels", CCTV reported, citing the Maritime Safety Administration.

China's maritime administration requires all ships to have an AIS transponder and to keep the signal on at all times within its jurisdiction, so that the authorities and other ships can identify and track vessels.

The report said the stations would "serve as strong support" to monitor ships in the area, for "ecological protection of the islands and reefs of Sansha and to provide safer and more reliable navigational guidance for ships in the South China Sea".

Sansha is the name of the municipality that Beijing established in 2012 to govern most of the South China Sea - a vast area it claims within what is known as the "nine-dash line" that includes the Paracel and Spratly Islands, as well as Macclesfield Bank.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Chinese Taipei all have overlapping claims to parts of the resource-rich South China Sea, one of the busiest waterways in the world.

ASEAN launches joint drills

All 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) kicked off their first joint military exercises in the South China Sea on Tuesday.

Previously, ASEAN held joint drills with other countries, including the United States and China, but this is the first ASEAN-only exercise.

The five-day non-combat exercise, called the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise, will be joined by a prospective 11th member, Timor Leste.

The exercise will take place around Batam and Natuna Islands near the South China Sea, Lt. Col. Abidin Tobba, media coordinator for the event, told BenarNews on Monday.

“Eleven countries and hundreds of personnel will take part in the exercise,” including Myanmar, Abidin said.

The drills will include joint maritime patrols, medical evacuation, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief in simulated affected areas, the Indonesian military said.

Indonesia’s military commander, Adm. Yudo Margono, who proposed the ASEAN exercise during a meeting of the bloc’s defense forces chiefs in Bali in June said he expected the exercises to enhance regional stability and “boost our countries’ economy.”

He said the exercise also signals that ASEAN does not want to be seen as siding with either China or the United States, which have been engaged in a strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region.

Analysts say escalated tensions between the two powers over various issues have turned Southeast Asia into a geopolitical tinderbox.

ASEAN’s decision to hold this members-only exercise is an effort to maintain regional stability amid this power rivalry, analysts added.

The intention of the exercise is to “show joint agency, regardless of the contention and rivalry between great powers,” Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, told BenarNews.

“It still has high value because it practically addresses actual needs such as disaster response, search and rescue, etc. that have been overshadowed by the US-China relations and high politics issues,” he said.

Indonesia is this year’s holder of the rotating ASEAN chairmanship.

Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are ASEAN’s ten members.

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