Reach For the Stars: China launched a final BeiDou satellite, challenging the US’ GPS

July 31, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

China launched the last satellite to join its BeiDou navigation network, bringing a new competition to GPS and cementing its place amongst countries that own global navigation satellite systems (GNSS).

What does this mean?

The BeiDou navigation system, which has taken nearly 30 years to develop and build, is worth £8bn and comprises 35 satellites. At the moment, there are only 4 major GNSS networks: the US’ GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo and now China’s BeiDou. The project was largely driven by China’s reluctance to depend on GPS developed and provided by the US. The Communist Party of China has long been wary about being reliant on the US-owned GPS as such technology is critical to national security. The completed BeiDou network provides China with worldwide navigation coverage, meaning China is no longer reliant on the US-owned GPS. From a commercial perspective, China has already sold products that utilise the BeiDou navigation network to 120 countries. Smartphones (other than Apple’s iPhone) sold in China from 2013 are also capable of receiving signals from BeiDou’s satellites.

What's the big picture effect?

For users, the successful establishment of BeiDou is considered good news as it provides an alternative to the other 3 GNSS, which can be useful if a specific GNSS network goes offline unexpectedly, as the Galileo network did in 2019. Installing BeiDou receivers also would add little cost and would help devices pinpoint a location more accurately as it would give access to more satellites.

But for China, BeiDou is seen as a big step towards its ambition of global domination. BeiDou offers discernible military advantages to China, enhancing navigation for Chinese border patrol and coastguard vehicles. Furthermore, BeiDou will be used in tandem with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Under the BRI, China is to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations, connecting Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks with the goal of incentivising trade and improving regional integration. Pakistan, China’s close ally and a party to the BRI, has been granted access to BeiDou, switching its armed force away from the US’ GPS. The presence of BeiDou would assist China in having more influences over numerous nations and governments.

From a technological standpoint, BeiDou marks key progress in preparation for China’s ongoing space exploration programmes. Since 2018, China has launched the most rockets per year, closing the gap with the US in outer space exploration after lagging behind for decades. Almost a month after launching BeiDou’s final satellite, China launched its first ever rover mission to Mars, demonstrating President Xi Jinping’s aspiration of being a space power by 2030. China is also expecting to complete its own space station in 2022. However, such burgeoning progress has raised concerns for an imminent space arms race. This is because space technologies have pertinent connotations for military technologies. The inevitable space arms race would cause tension between China and the US to deteriorate further; it is likely that the trade wars will be extended as a result and sanctions between the two opposing powers will intensify.

Report written by Long Dinh

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