The Impact of Geopolitical Tensions in the South China Sea and the militarization of the Space and Cyberspace Domain

A Continual Learner
9 min readJan 3, 2021


This article reviews the history and the growing geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, and how China is using its military presence in the Space and Cyberspace Domain to catapult their domination in air, land, and sea. This article will also briefly examine the current state of China’s space program and project future threats from China.

The growing tensions in the South China Sea

The United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) dictates that any country with coastal and maritime boundaries has the right to exploit over all natural resources within 200 nautical miles, also known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This means that six nations, which includes Brunei, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, have sovereign claims within the the South China Sea.

Six Nations’ claims on the South China Sea (VOA News)

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, this region holds an estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil, with many more unexplored areas. What is more significant is that $3.3 trillion worth of goods transit through the South China Sea annually, making up an estimated one-third of global shipping. This means that any conflict within the area could lead to a global economic crisis.

Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea (VnExpress International)

At the forefront of this dispute is China’s claim on its EEZ. The People’s Republic of China has created military bases in the South China Sea by artificially forming islands into airstrips and ports in order to annex these islands into international maritime space, thus creating new boundaries for China. One case is the Spratly Islands, which are a collection of more than 100 small islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

Although the islands are only 4 Km2 of land, they are geostrategically placed in order to gain new Exclusive Economic Zones. As a result, China has begun constructing outposts across the South China Sea, militarizing the sea with fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system.

Militarization in the South China Sea (Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research)

The People’s Republic of China claims that the South China Sea is their territory due to the 9-dash line, also called the 11-dash line or the 7-dash line. In 1947, Yang Huairen, a Chinese geographer, drew the U-shaped, 11-dash line on Chinese maps to demarcate roughly 90 percent of the contested South China Sea for his homeland. However, the 9-dash line has been rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016 (Philippines v. China), with China rejecting the ruling. The ruling is legally blinding but has no actionable enforcement, giving China continuous authority over the region.

Map of the 9-dash line in South China Sea (Harvard International Law Journal)

Despite international condemnation, China has continued its military operations, sending its aircraft carriers to defend the South China Sea. For the neighboring countries, they do not have the military force to defend against China’s actions. As a result, the United States, along with the allied nations, has increased the “Freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) in the South China Sea to combat China’s military. FONOPs are a method of enforcing UNCLOS, as the U.S. Armed Forces challenges the illegal claims and territories set by China, ultimately upholding the rules set by the international order. According to the Department of Defense, President Trump has continued to increase FONOPs, reaching ten exercises in 2019.

Example of FONOP (Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School)

In retaliation, China has implemented the “Little Blue Men,” a group of maritime militias disguised as civilian fishermen to notify the Chinese military for foreign activities. For China, the “Little Blue Men” provides an element of deniability, while also establishing control across the South China Sea. According to the Pentagon, the “Little Blue Men” is officially said to number 21 million fishermen and 439,000 motor boats.

Little Blue Men are deployed to obstruct the South China Sea (East-West Institute)

This tactic partly explains China’s expansion for space programs. When the “Little Blue Men” notice foreign activities, they send alerts to the Chinese military through the Chinese navigation satellite system, BeiDou, that will receive short messages from the fishermen, along with the option of requesting military assistance. With a touch of a button, the fishermen are able to spawn the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy). The expansion of the South China Sea has not only shown the world the military capabilities of China, but also has fueled the demand for accurate satellite communication for the Chinese military, thus increasing the need for a dominant space program.

China’s Space Program

Satellite-based positioning systems are the bedrock for any location services, everything from in-car navigation to emergency notification systems. These systems also allow aircraft and ships to navigate and enable remote operation of huge agricultural and mining machines with pinpoint precision. There are many Global Navigation Satellite Systems in the world that provide this function, including GPS (United States), GLONASS (Russia), Galileo (European Union), and BeiDou (China).

BeiDou Navigation Systems

The reason why China does not rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) network is because GPS was developed by the U.S. Military. In 1959, the U.S. Navy designed the GPS network, originally called TRANSIT, to locate submarines. By 1974, the U.S. military launches 24-GPS satellites called NAVSTAR. In 1983, a tragic incident where Russia shot down Korean Air Flight 007 after it wandered off course into Soviet airspace led to President Reagan offering civilian usage for GPS. Currently, there is a constellation of 30 operational GPS satellites actively maintained by the U.S. Air Force.

GPS Satellites developed by Lockheed Martin for U.S. Air Force (Lockheed Martin)

China has decided to begin its own navigation system beginning in 2000. This was because in 1996, during the Taiwan Strait Crisis, China fired three missiles to locations on the Taiwan Strait as a warning. While the first missile hit its intended target, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lost track of the other two. China claims that the U.S. had cut off the GPS signal to the Pacific that China relied upon for missile tracking. The event prompted Beijing to build its global navigation and positioning satellite system.

Model of BeiDou Navigational Satellite system (Reuters)

As a result, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has launched 35 BeiDou-3 Navigation Satellites in medium Earth orbit, with the last launch in 23 June, 2020. These satellites are geosynchronous orbits that will provide positioning accuracies of less than 1–5 meters. However, unlike the GPS, BeiDou has a short messaging service in which messages as long as 120 characters can be sent to other BeiDou receivers.

Google Maps GPS Shift for Huangpu River — Evidence of China not using GPS (Service Objects)

Although the U.S. had a head start on constructing and launching navigation satellites, China has now overtaken in the number of operational navigation satellites. According to Nikkei Asia, as of June 28, 2019, Chinese satellites were observed more frequently than GPS satellites in 130 of 195 countries as China is offering BeiDou for its ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative. Many companies that have incorporated BeiDou into their infrastructure have seen far superior accuracy for location, incentivizing companies to use BeiDou instead of GPS.

BeiDou Satellite coverage vs. GPS (Nikkei Asia)

However, BeiDou has a critical flaw for its users. All other global navigation systems like GPS only sends out signals, but BeiDou requires a two-way communication. This means that BeiDou could transmit to a satellite in orbit while receiving information. The U.S. national security agencies believe that China’s government can track users of the system by deploying malware transmitted through either its navigation signal or messaging function. In 2016, the Taiwan Legislature warned that BeiDou is greater prone to cyberattacks.

China is not only strategically gaining control of the region of the South China Sea, but has also expanded to both space and cyberspace domain, posing a greater risk to national security than ever before.

Consequences in the Expansion of Space and Cyberspace Domain

The China National Space Administration stated its space program is to improve their standing in the world of space science, establish a crewed space station, and send crewed missions to the Moon. China has shown commitment and has made historic achievements that no other countries could do, as China was the first country to land the robotic spacecraft Chang’e 4 on the far side of the moon on January 3rd, 2019.

The first image of the moon’s far side taken by China’s Chang’e-4 probe (Getty Images/China National Space Administration)

Despite the success of China’s space program, China’s current ambition for space exploration has also shown China’s goals for military expansion. According to Air University’s paper on China’s Military Role in Space, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) future space operations will focus on space information support, space offensive operations, space defensive operations, and space deterrence, with the ultimate goal of space dominance.

Illustration of China’s Space Domination (Yuko Shimizu)

China’s focus on space offensive operations are evident in PLA’s direct-ascent, kinetic-kill antisatellite (ASAT) in January 2007, where the missile destroyed a nonoperational Fengyun-1C weather satellite in low orbit. In the process, it also generated a massive amount of space debris. According to the Center for Space, PLA’s ASAT missile has created 2,317 pieces big enough to be tracked and NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office is estimating more than 35,000 pieces bigger than 1 cm.

The People’s Liberation Army’s ASAT Missile in 2007 (MIT)

The greater threat of this test is the damage to other satellites, as the pieces of debris can create collateral damage. Although these debris are small, they are travelling at 17,500 mph, which are enough to penetrate a spacecraft. With over 20,000 trackable debris currently, ASAT missiles pose a serious threat, creating an exponential problem for the space domain.

NASA tracking 1200 operational satellites, with estimated 23,000 manmade objects in Space (NASA)

Along with the impact in the space domain, China has state-sponsored hackers that can attack in the cyberspace domain, accompanied by software with backdoor access for network reconnaissance and even remote control. In May 2020, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suspected Chinese hackers conducted a phishing campaign to compromise Vietnamese government officials involved in ongoing territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Chinese People Liberation Army cyber troops. PLA Photo

With the risk of cyber warfare and space warfare, China has been banned from joining the International Space Station in 2011 due to two matters of distrust, including the use of ASAT missile and the hacking of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory intellectual property from two Chinese nationals. The U.S. legislature passed the Wolf Amendment to solidify China’s ban with NASA. Even today, China isn’t allowed to visit the International Space Station.


China’s militarization of space and cyberspace capabilities has not only revealed their commitment to space domination, but has also displayed its strength to continually expand its territories illegally, especially in the South China Sea. China’s ambition of controlling the South China Sea will not stop, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is setting its horizon towards conquering the Sino-Indian border.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

Harvard Belfer Center has revealed that based on Thucydides Trap, a Greek metaphor for when a rising power rivals a ruling power, 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. And based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely.

Thucydides’s Trap (Harvard Belfer Center)

The world leaders will have to recognize that the space and cyberspace domain will be a war-fighting domain. And China will prompt the full force of its integrated military to the world. By 2049, President Xi Jinping promised, China would “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.” China’s armed forces had, have, will maximize the potential for space and cyberspace and incessantly project its power until world domination.



A Continual Learner

With passion for technology, military, and economics, In Bok Lee has created A Continual Learner with the purpose of sharing knowledge.