China Power | Security | East Asia

China’s Answer to GPS Is Now Fully Complete

The final satellite in the BeiDou system completes an undertaking 20 years in the making.

By Abhilash Halappanavar for
China’s Answer to GPS Is Now Fully Complete
Credit: Unsplash

Technological independence and superiority have long been hallmarks of superpowers; China too, in its quest to be a dominant force in the world, has invested heavily in state-of-the-art communication and transmission systems. On June 23, China concluded its decades-long project to build its own global navigation satellite system, a venture that will make it self-sufficient and avoid dependence on foreign rivals when it comes to a network that undergirds modern business, technologies and the military.

The latest satellite in China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System is a third-generation satellite known as BeiDou-3, now in geostationary orbit after having lifted off earlier this week from the Xichang Center in southwestern China. This final satellite of the system will give it full global capability. At this point, China’s completed system is poised to rival America’s GPS, Europe’s Galileo, and Russia’s GLONASS. BeiDou is a prototype of Beijing’s push to build and offer commercial surrogates to Western tech platforms. The system is meant to provide error-free global positioning services, as well as a means to transfer limited amounts of data, for commercial and military users.

The latest satellite will complete the BeiDou navigation and positioning system, consisting of 27 satellites in medium Earth orbit, five in geostationary orbit, and three more in inclined geosynchronous orbits. The first BeiDou satellite was launched in the year 2000; Monday’s launch was the 30th third-generation BeiDou-3 satellite sent into orbit. The BeiDou satellite system is already in use; on the commercial end, more than 70 percent of Chinese smartphones already use the system. Other reports indicate that BeiDou receivers have been integrated into over 6.2 million taxis, buses, and trucks as well as at least 40,000 fishing ships across the country.

However, BeiDou is also of immense strategic value of China. The system is very capable of carrying out cyberespionage and tactical maneuvers essential for the Chinese intelligence and military establishments. For the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), BeiDou acts as a domestically controlled proxy for global systems. Beijing’s pursuit of military upgrades has made it work toward building capabilities to fight modern wars, which require precision-guided weapons and advanced communication networks. The BeiDou system has already been integrated into the PLA’s modern command system and weapons guidance packages in recent years. Weapons targeting and guidance also significantly improves with BeiDou’s improvement.

BeiDou’s location services are quite precise, down to 10 centimeters in the Asia-Pacific, compared with GPS’s 30-cm range. China seeks to enhance real-time surveillance, reconnaissance, and warning systems through the deployment of the BeiDou navigation satellite system. It is of foremost importance for the Chinese military to employ BeiDou-guided conventional ammunition to support its efforts to counter a U.S. intervention in a potential hotspot by denying access to GPS in that area, thereby blacking out the U.S. military from operating in the zone.

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BeiDou can also be seen as a space equivalent for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. While the latter looks to increase the territorial presence of Chinese civil and military undertakings across the globe, BeiDou is China’s space-controlling interface. In the coming years, Beijing sees BeiDou and related services as a major business enterprise, particularly for countries partnering with China in the BRI. Already, over 30 countries, largely in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, use the system, including for various projects in Indonesia, Kuwait, Uganda, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Russia.

This growing user base for BeiDou outside of China adds to its geopolitical and economic rise as BeiDou-related services such as port traffic monitoring and disaster mitigation have been exported to about 120 countries already. China’s effort to take BeiDou’s global operations live is meant to deepen international reliance on China for space-based services, potentially at the expense of U.S. influence. This would naturally amplify Beijing’s global outreach and increase its presence in all major technological and infrastructure projects using navigational and positional services. As a testament to this, countries like Thailand, Pakistan, Laos, and Brunei already have been using BeiDou services.

China has also started exporting weapons systems to Pakistan that use BeiDou. Pakistan is the only country whose armed forces use the exact version of BeiDou that the PLA uses. The Pakistan Air Force’s JF-17 fighter jet is powered by the BeiDou positioning and navigation system. In addition to this, Pakistan’s Ra’ad-II cruise missile reportedly uses BeiDou. In the future, other countries wary of using European, Russian, or U.S. satellite systems for security reasons may look toward BeiDou. BeiDou’s expansion will gradually end reliance on the American military-run GPS network that many in the world fear is monitored and manipulated by the United States.

China’s development and promotion of BeiDou presents challenges for countries like the United States, India, Australia, Japan, and many others in economic, security and diplomatic areas. The main area of concern is that BeiDou could pose a security risk by allowing the Chinese government to track users of the system by placing malware in transmissions through either its navigation signal or messaging function via a satellite communication channel, once the technology is in extensive use. China’s nontransparent policies make the world wary of its intentions, and its secretive approach in handling the COVID-19 crisis has increased suspicions about Beijing’s global ambitions.

Regardless of these concerns, the completion of the two decades-long BeiDou endeavor is an illustration of China’s long-term strategy paying dividends in the worlds of both business and security. In light of the above, new clients will surely queue up before China in seeking BeiDou services, but its effective sales pitch will depend upon the freedom that China will provide to its customer countries in using BeiDou services. After all, countries always have other alternatives like GPS, EU’s Galileo, or even the upcoming Indian IRNSS. China’s BeiDou push is mainly for strategic purposes. It will surely challenge the U.S-based GPS, but the United States and its European allies have great expertise in this technology and have developed a lot of skills and organizational memory on how to use GPS for national security purposes. China will have some catching up to do as its navigation and positioning program is just going operationally live.

The world needs to be cautious in accepting or overhauling their existing technological dependencies and loyalties in this arena as the power to control and command such strategic assets gives the service provider a tag of supremacy.

Abhilash Halappanavar is an electronics and communications engineer working as an analyst for an Indian software conglomerate based in Bangalore.