China Power | Security | East Asia

The Economic and Military Impact of China’s BeiDou Navigation System

The combination of recent technological developments offers a China-led world order a definitive competitive edge.

By Namrata Goswami for
The Economic and Military Impact of China’s BeiDou Navigation System

In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, a model of Chinese Beidou Navigation Satellite System is displayed during Airshow China 2018, in Zhuhai city, Guangdong province.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

On June 23, 2020, China completed construction of its BeiDou Positioning and Navigation System (BDS) by launching the 55th and final satellite for its BDS3 navigation constellation. With this launch, China now enjoys a fully independent self-reliant global navigation satellite system (GNSS) as an alternative to the U.S. Space Force-maintained Global Positioning System (GPS). An independent BeiDou offers China augmented precision navigation and timing (PNT) for its military space forces.

A commentary from Xinhua, China’s state-run new agency, highlighted this aspect by specifying:

The BeiDou network, a major infrastructure independently constructed and operated by China, can better meet the demands of the country’s national security, economic as well as social development. It can also provide more stable and reliable services, as well as an alternative to the U.S.-owned Global Positioning System (GPS) [emphasis added] for global users. Given national security concerns due to the GPS’s dominance, China is not the only one in the world that strives to develop its satellite navigation systems. For many years, the European Union, Russia and others have all been working on their own projects.

The chief designer of BDS, Yang Changfeng, a member of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, specified that “the BDS services are used in various fields including transportation, agriculture, fishing, disaster reduction and relief…the satellite-based augmentation system of the BDS will provide high-precision and high-integrity services to users with meter, decimeter and centimeter-level real-time positioning.”

China is offering BeiDou as an open system, free of charge, to the world, with high amounts of accuracy critical for economic and military space infrastructure.

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Conceptually, BeiDou is located within China’s “Information Silk Road,” a subset of its land and maritime silk routes under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is now able to extend influence in a multidomain environment (land, sea and space) via its BeiDou space system, which provides navigation to aircraft, submarines, missiles, as well as commercial services dependent on such navigation. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology sells the Information Silk Road, to include BeiDou and 5G networks, to global audiences as a completely self-sufficient technology infrastructure that anticipates life in the 21st century. This Chinese information infrastructure consists of undersea cables, where China is dominant, space-supported links, and other Earth-based links.

The launch of the last BDS satellite comes at a time when the world is heavily dependent on space infrastructure due to the impact of COVID-19 limitations on in-person physical meetings and travel restrictions, leading to increased demand for broadband internet for communication and for satellite-based internet. China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), anticipating the importance of space in our lives, determined in April 2020 that services like space information, and associated incorporated services like 5G, satellite broadband, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) are part of its “New Infrastructures” list. These “New Infrastructures” are now targeted for government investment and policy direction.

Path to a Separate BDS System

In 1996, during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, China fired three missiles to locations on the Taiwan Strait as a warning signal against Taiwan’s moves for independence and full internationally recognized statehood. While the first missile hit about 18.5 kilometers from Taiwan’s Keelung military base as a warning, China lost track of the other two missiles. China asserts that the United States had cut off the GPS signal to the Pacific, on which China was dependent at that time for missile tracking. Consequently, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) woke up to the strategic vulnerability of having such critical military space infrastructure in the hands of a foreign power. A PLA colonel remembered that incident: “It was a great shame for the PLA … an unforgettable humiliation. That’s how we made up our mind to develop our own global [satellite] navigation and positioning system, no matter how huge the cost…BeiDou is a must for us. We learned it the hard way.”

In 1996, China decided to build its own navigation system, to be completed within 25 years, to establish truly independent military command and control, and precision missile guidance and tracking. The end result of that decision is the establishment of the independent GNSS and PNT systems, the PLA Strategic Support Force, and the development of China’s missile capabilities, to include cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles under the PLA Rocket Force.

Economic and Military Implications of BDS

There are several economic implications of the completion of an independent BeiDou navigation system. First, China promises that the BDS will build a world of intelligent manufacturing and innovation based on a self-sustaining system not dependent on the West. Most importantly, from a geopolitical perspective, BeiDou offers an alternative to GPS, enabling China to further consolidate its hold on global infrastructure and rulemaking to challenge the centrality of the United States to form partnerships and alliances and to control the standards for information technology, mobile devices, 5G, self-driving cars and drones, and the broader internet of things. Second, the BDS promises to be “100 times more accurate” as a navigation system to those who sign up for it, a major advantage for those companies dependent on GPS for competitive profit advantage. Third, it aims to provide an overall better internet and technology experience, especially for countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The consequence of such information-based economic dependency on China is that countries will be careful not to anger the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over political issues, to include Tibet, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, as that could result in China cutting off critical technology with deep impact on their societies’ critical infrastructure. In other words, global use of BDS increases China’s leverage for compellence and coercion.

There are also clear security implications, as BeiDou is a force multiplier in the military context for China.

First, for fixed military targets, China can now independently guide missiles and bombs onto targets without fear that the United States would turn off navigation services. Second, for mobile targets, once geolocated through satellites or other means, China can guide its missiles very close to the target, after which a terminal seeker can provide active guidance for precise targeting. This scenario could apply to China’s ballistic missiles, for example the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Ltd-built DF-21D, that can target U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Third, BeiDou enables independent military command and control by allowing precise knowledge of the location of one’s own forces, and the ability to precisely target and provide navigation for military forces and strikes. This capability strengthens China’s ability to coerce or compel others within its sphere of interest, such as on issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan or Hong Kong. It also limits U.S. counterintervention options, and raises the credibility of China’s ability to impose costs should the United States or its allies seek to intervene. Fourth, an independent BDS coupled with 5G means real-time military command and control and devastatingly accurate automated weapons systems.

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With the successful launch of the BeiDou satellite constellation, China has proven that it is serious in its movement toward a world order where countries converge on its vision of an interconnected world, with China as the key player. This is backed by the long-term strategic insight that whichever country dominates such space infrastructure will dominate future geopolitics. The combination of these technological developments offers a China-led world order a definitive competitive edge.

Dr. Namrata Goswami is a Senior Analyst and Author specializing in space policy, geopolitics and Great Powers. Her forthcoming book is on ‘Great Power Competition in Outer Space’ to be published by Lexington Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield.