The move, which could irritate Beijing, deepens ties between India and Vietnam, who both 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 East Vietnam Sea, they said.
“In military terms, this move could be quite significant,” said Collin Koh, a marine security expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “It looks like a win-win for both sides, filling significant holes for the Vietnamese and expanding the range for the Indians.”
The state-run 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, the Indian officials said. Indian media put the cost at around $23 million.
India, whose 54-year-old space programme is accelerating, with one satellite launch scheduled every month, has ground stations in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Brunei, Biak in eastern Indonesia and Mauritius that track its satellites in the initial stages of flight.
The Vietnam facility will bolster those capabilities, said Deviprasad Karnik, an ISRO spokesman.
Quid pro quo
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.
“This is a sort of quid pro quo which will enable Vietnam to receive IRS (Indian remote sensing) pictures directly, that is, without asking India,” said the official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
“Obviously it will include parts of China of interest to Vietnam.”
Chinese coastal naval bases, the operations of Beijing’s coastguard and navy and the new man-made islands it built in the Spratly archipelago of the East Vietnam Sea would be targets of Vietnamese interest, security experts said.