China Power | Security | East Asia

Precision Politics: China’s Answer to GPS Comes Online

With the BeiDou system set to be completed in May, China is stepping up efforts to sell other countries on its global satellite navigation system.

By Heath Sloane for
Precision Politics: China’s Answer to GPS Comes Online

A model of Chinese BeiDou navigation satellite system is displayed during the 12th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, also known as Airshow China 2018, in Zhuhai city, south China’s Guangdong province, Nov. 7, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

China’s homegrown global navigation satellite constellation will finally come online next month after two decades in the making. Once online, the 35 satellites in the BeiDou constellation promise unprecedented functionality for China’s civil and military networks.

While the final satellite is yet to be launched into the constellation, previous iterations of BeiDou have been in use since 2000. Already, 70 percent of Chinese smartphones and 300 million users spanning 200 countries and regions connect to the BeiDou system. 6.5 million vehicles now contain BeiDou receivers and provide dynamic monitoring of traffic. As its user base grows across “Belt and Road” member states, the strategic implications and global market share of BeiDou also rise.

Australia has significantly contributed to China’s successful deployment of BeiDou. A satellite tracking facility in Perth and stations in Australia’s Antarctic Territory, both established by China, have considerably improved the system’s capabilities across the Pacific.

BeiDou epitomizes China’s push for homegrown alternatives to Western tech platforms. Chinese President Xi Jinping hails the GPS rival as “one of the great achievements in China’s 40 years of reform.” With BeiDou China opens yet another front in the global tech war, alongside the theaters of 5G internet, semiconductors, and hypersonic missiles.

Expected to be worth more than $108 billion by 2025, the global navigation satellite system market has caught the world’s attention. BeiDou is poised to capitalize on China’s own lucrative market, which is set to surpass $57 billion this year, but it is not alone. India, Japan, and the U.K. also aspire to join the coveted ranks of America’s GPS, Europe’s Galileo, and Russia’s GLONASS systems.

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Homegrown GPS systems are key to resolve a major military weakness: reliance on foreign-controlled communication and navigation networks. China’s 2019 defense white paper explicitly prioritized the rapid modernization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), boosting strides in drone warfare, cyber capabilities, and hypersonic missile delivery systems. But fighting modern wars requires precision-guided weaponry and robust communications networks. BeiDou promises to deliver on both, allowing China to circumvent any GPS constraints imposed by the United States.

The PLA’s reliance on BeiDou for its modern command system and weapons guidance packages is nothing new. Since at least 2014, BeiDou terminals have been deployed throughout the PLA Ground Forces, Navy, and Air Force.

What is new is how China now seeks to grow the global export of BeiDou-backed weapons systems to members of the 139-country-strong Belt and Road Initiative.

As the only country permitted to use the same unrestricted version of BeiDou as the PLA, Pakistan was the first to import BeiDou for military applications, including its homegrown JF-17 fighter jets and Ra’ad-II cruise missiles.

Thailand also minted a 2 billion RMB agreement with China in 2013 to integrate BeiDou in its public sector and disaster relief efforts, with the potential for military application. Thailand and its ASEAN neighbors are already home to several hundred stations to support BeiDou satellites from the ground.

China’s export of BeiDou-powered technology to Pakistan and Thailand lays the blueprint for China’s expansion into other Belt and Road nations. Widespread integration of BeiDou across the Belt and Road will ostensibly end a member nation’s reliance on the American military-run GPS network. Indeed, as countries grow wary of increasing American isolationism, BeiDou presents an enticing alternative.

The completion of this effort exemplifies China’s long-term strategy in decoupling itself from foreign technology in matters of national security. Torn between rival networks, the world may soon be bifurcated into GPS or BeiDou camps.

Heath Sloane is a Yenching Scholar at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. His research focus is on China’s soft power and public diplomacy outreach.