India will establish a satellite tracking and imaging centre in southern Vietnam that will give Hanoi access to pictures from Indian earth observation satellites that cover the region, including China and the South China Sea.
This move will deepen ties between India and Vietnam who have long-running territorial disputes with China.
While billed as a civilian facility – earth observation satellites have agricultural, scientific and environmental applications – security experts said improved imaging technology meant the pictures could also be used for military purposes.
Hanoi especially has been looking for advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies as tensions rise with China over the disputed South China Sea, they said.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will fund and set up the satellite tracking and data reception centre in Ho Chi Minh City to monitor Indian satellite launches.
But unlike the other overseas stations, the facility will also be equipped to receive images from India’s earth observation satellites that Vietnam can use in return for granting India the tracking site, said an Indian government official connected with the space programme.
Chinese coastal naval bases, the operations of its coastguard and navy and its new man-made islands in the disputed archipelago of the South China Sea would be targets of Vietnamese interest, security experts said.
Another Indian official said New Delhi would also have access to the imagery. India has 11 earth observation satellites in orbit, offering pictures with differing resolutions and areas, the ISRO said. Indian officials had no timeframe for when the centre would be operational.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry confirmed the project, but provided few other details.
China’s defence ministry said the proposed tracking station wasn’t a military issue. The Chinese foreign ministry had no immediate comment.
Vietnam launched its first earth observation satellite in 2013.
Security experts said Vietnam would likely seek real-time access to images from the Indian satellites as well as training in imagery analysis, a specialized intelligence field.
The tracking station will be the first such foreign facility in Vietnam and follows other agreements between Hanoi and New Delhi that have cemented security ties.
India has extended a $100 million credit line for Hanoi to buy patrol boats and is training Vietnamese submariners in India while Hanoi has granted oil exploration blocks to India in waters off Vietnam that are disputed with China.