India is supposed to set up a centre for tracking satellite images in the southern part of Vietnam. It is expected that this will give the powers-that-be in Vietnam access to pictures that are taken by earth observation satellites built by India and thus monitor the entire region of South China Sea and China. Normally earth observation satellites can be used for agricultural, environmental, and scientific purposes and this is the reason why this particular device has been dubbed a civilian facility. Security experts, though, are of the opinion that this supposed civilian instrument could have military applications as well.
What has triggered the plan?
Ajay Lele, a retired group captain of the Indian Air Force, feels that the main spur behind engaging at every possible level with Vietnam is China. One feels that with such moves the government attempts to make sure that it can keep an eye on China and also try and prevent it from being too influential in the region. In the recent years, China has started to assert itself militarily and this is why both India and Vietnam are redoing their armed forces in order to counter its influence. In fact, China has fought wars with both the countries in the last century. Carl Thayer, a scholar based in Australia who has since 1960s studied the military domain of Vietnam, feels that with this satellite tracking centre both countries are looking to improve their defence-related ties.
When will it be set up and what is the objective behind setting it up?
ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) is expected to provide the funding for setting up the said centre. It will set it up as well at Ho Chi Minh City. However, there is still no timeframe available as to when the facility will be erected. At present the entire plan is in the stage of dialogues between officials of both countries. However, some sources have also stated that the project has received the confirmation of the Foreign Ministry of Vietnam.
The main aim behind setting up the facility is to keep an eye on satellites that are being launched by India. Media reports have estimated that it will take approximately $23 million to establish the facility. India’s space programme, which has been going strong for 54 years, has recently gathered pace and now India is launching virtually one satellite per month. It presently has ground stations at locations such as Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Biak in eastern Indonesia, Brunei, and Mauritius. All these centres keep track of the early stages of satellites launched by India. Deviprasad Karnik, a spokesman for ISRO, has said that those capabilities will receive a significant boost with the Vietnam facility.
How will it help India?
Collin Koh, who is a marine expert working at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, says that from a military perspective this will benefit India as well by increasing its range. This satellite tracking centre will also provide India more images from China that can be used for military reasons.
Will this move benefit Vietnam?
In the last few years Vietnam’s problems with China have been increasing regarding territorial control over South China Sea. This is why the South Asian country has been looking to increase its intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities. It is expected that this tracking centre will act as a major boost in that regard. One also feels that the images taken from the satellites will include areas in China that are important for Vietnam. Security experts are of the opinion that the list could include the coastal naval bases, the new man-made islands, and the way China’s navy and coastguard are working in the South China Sea. Even though Vietnam had introduced its first earth observation satellite during 2013, according to Koh, it was not capable of producing images with high resolution. So, in this case too Vietnam stands to gain significantly.
How will it affect the bi-lateral ties between the two nations?
It is being said that this decision will only strengthen ties between India and Vietnam. Incidentally both these countries have significant disputes with China. In a way this tracking centre is like an exchange between both the countries. Vietnam has allowed India the land to build a tracking centre and in exchange it will be able to use the remote sensing images taken from the satellites. They need not take any permission from India for the same. Incidentally this tracking station is the first of its kind to be built by a foreign entity and represents progress in the bilateral ties of both countries.
What does the move mean for China?
Experts opine that this move would act as a major irritant for China and some of them feel that it would be upset with the growing bond between India and Vietnam. However, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman of China’s Foreign Ministry, has stated that the said centre will only act to enhance the levels of cooperation in the region. The Defence Ministry of China has said that it does not consider the said station to be a military issue.