China has put a satellite monitoring station on a South Pacific island, raising concern in some US quarters over a potential security threat to US military communications.
United States military and private security sources said Tuesday the outpost - the first satellite station built by China outside the mainland - is located on Tarawa in Kiribati. Formerly known as the Gilbert Islands, the Kiribati chain straddles the intersection of the International Dateline and the Equator.
"The location is not only commercially useful, but militarily strategic for an entire range of missions, ranging from satellite control, data downlinks, data intercepts, and others," says George Friedman, president of Strategic Forecasting, a business intelligence company.
The US newsletter Navy News & Undersea Technology said the facility could be used to track and monitor satellites, rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and US Navy communications.
US military sources said work on the satellite monitoring station began last January under an agreement between China and the government of Kiribati President Tebacuro Tito. The outpost became operational earlier this month.
"We are aware the Chinese have set up a station of Kiribati, and it is operational," a US defense official said. Military intelligence, however, discounted immediate suspicions of Chinese motives. "As far as we know, that station has a benign purpose," a source said. "It's part of their ongoing (space launch) program to have a station there."
Although satellite communications in general are "extremely vulnerable" to monitoring, US military communications are encrypted, and unless the interceptor has the correct code "keys," data gathered would just appear as gibberish, military and satellite engineers said.
China, with its Long March rocket carriers, has an ambitious commercial space launch program.