A satellite in orbit above the Earth. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
A satellite in orbit above the Earth. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Providing real-time location data, the global positioning system (GPS), which has both civil and military uses, is the largest and most reliable direction finder in the world.

Since the US Air Force launched the very first satellite to make global observations of the Earth’s oceans into space in 1978, the GPS network gas dominated the market. Several other countries established similar networks over the years, but remained far behind the American GPS system. Russia’s GLONASS, China’s Beidou and the European Space Agency’s Galileo networks tried to keep up with the US, but were unable to dislodge GPS from the top spot.

However, in the last couple of years, China’s Beidou network has been making rapid progress and is now on its way to becoming the largest satellite network. Having launched more than 40 satellites into space, China has now outstripped GPS, which runs on 31 satellites, while Russia’s GLONASS operates 24. China has its sights set on “serving the entire globe by the year 2020” with “100 times more accuracy.”

According to China Satellite Navigation Office director Ran Chengqi, “It will be a change from 10 meters, to decimeters, to centimeters. For example, if we hail a cab with a mobile phone with such accuracy, we don’t need to tell the driver where we stand, because the car will arrive directly at our feet.” Considering these developments, it seems the world is about to witness a new “Star Wars” race between the US and China. And this is only the beginning for Beidou as China ultimately plans to establish a satellite system for the the nearly 64 countries that are part of its mega-project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The Beidou network first became operational in Pakistan last year under the umbrella of the BRI. Under an agreement with Pakistan’s national space agency, the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, a ground-based augmentation system was installed by the Beijing-based Unistrong Science and Technology Co in Karachi, where it has had five base stations and a processing center since 2014. UniStrong’s Zhang Ruifeng said the full Beidou system, which has a 2-centimetre accuracy rate, had been installed and it can later be extended to 5 millimetres when it completely covers Pakistan. Pakistan was the first country to sign an official agreement with China on BDS. Strategically, it may be advantageous for Pakistan’s defense and security mechanism to avail itself of dual navigational layers.

BDS will be establishing more base stations and conducting scientific and technical research as part of BRI economic diplomacy

Planning to expand onwards to Thailand, Sri Lanka and other countries in Southeast Asia, the BDS company will be establishing more base stations and conducting scientific and technical research as part of BRI economic diplomacy. Outlining the main aims, Professor Li Deren of Wuhan University said, “Our priority is to expand BDS from China to the frontline of the Belt and Road Initiative, and in this Optics Valley, Beidou is a pioneer.”

With more than 80% of it now complete, Beidou has progressed rapidly as  18 satellites were sent into space from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province in 2018. Such an intensive launch program was possible because the BDS-3 satellite team fine-tuned the process. Costing about $12 billion, the Beidou network can bring in a lot of revenue if it proves to be more accurate than GPS, and most smartphones now support both GPS and Beidou.

Meanwhile, China’s NavInfo is supplying Tesla and BMW with navigation tech and expects to sell 15 million Beidou-linked chips by 2020, and China’s satellite navigation business may exceed $57 billion by that time, according to the Chinese news service Xinhua. As per a report by Grand View Research, Inc, global positioning systems will be worth US $146.4 billion by 2025 as the demand for location-based services is constantly on the rise, ranging from map locations and food deliveries to the navigation of military aircraft and naval ships.

Recently, the 13th United Nations International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems (ICG) was convened in China, and representatives from 16 countries, including the EU, US and Russia, discussed the modalities for increasing the compatibility of their satellites. As China is the second-biggest global economy, most manufacturers have started modifying their products to make them operable under both networks to safeguard their business interests.

Undoubtedly, Beidou could potentially enhance China’s clout and provide it with added leverage in global organizations and alliances. Not stopping at launching 40 satellites into space, China plans to add 11 more in 2019. Additionally, a lunar probe, Chang’e 4, is to be launched into space next month, while a Mars probe and rover await liftoff in 2020. Summing it up aptly, Andrew Dempster from the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research observed, “It is classic space-race sort of stuff.”

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst.
Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia.
Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue
Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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