With the launch of its BeiDou satellite, Beijing's Space Silk Road is open for business

This week, China launched into orbit the final satellite needed to make its BeiDou navigation system a worldwide alternative to the American Global Positioning and the European Galileo systems. For Beijing, this satellite programme is crucial in more than one respect.

A model of the BeiDou navigation satellites system is seen at an exhibition to mark China's Space Day 2019 on April 24, in Changsha, Hunan province, China.
A model of the BeiDou navigation satellites system is seen at an exhibition to mark China's Space Day 2019 on April 24, in Changsha, Hunan province, China. © ©Aly Song, REUTERS

For China, its 'New Silk Road' will essentially also pass through space. Beijing succeeded in launching the 35th and last satellite of its national navigation system, BeiDou, into orbit on June 23. This feat enables it to compete on a global level with the American GPS, the European Galileo and with Glonass, the solution developed by the Russians.

The launch marks the culmination of a long-term project that began in 1983 under the impetus of Chen Fangyun, an engineer nicknamed the "father of Chinese satellites". But it wasn't until the early 2000s that BeiDou really took off with the setting up of a network of satellites capable of providing geopositioning for the Chinese territory.

"The Chinese understood that navigation systems were bringing about a technological revolution in the military field by observing the effectiveness of American air raids during the war in Iraq in 2003," Keith Hayward, research director at the Royal Aeronautical Society in the United Kingdom, told FRANCE 24.

A guarantee of autonomy

Twelve years later, Beijing has succeeded in expanding the coverage of BeiDou to the entire Asian continent. Initially a military-inspired project, the system has also become an economic tool. "These satellites are essential for China because they enable it to compensate for the lack of ground communications infrastructure," Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, a specialist in space policy at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and author of a book on China's conquest of space, told FRANCE 24.

With the 35th satellite in orbit, BeiDou is now operational all over the world. This is a crucial step in terms of China's ambitions to become a power at the cutting edge of innovation. "Most of the technologies that are a priority for Beijing – the Internet of Things, 5G or autonomous cars for example – require the use of a navigation system," said Sourbès-Verger.

The stakes are too high to depend on "made in USA" technology. "The development of BeiDou gives the Chinese an essential autonomy,” said Hayward. “Whether from a military or civilian point of view, you don't want to be dependent on a country which, in the event of a major crisis, can decide to cut off access to navigational data."

Proof that "Beijing is not a technological parasite"

The system is also a diplomatic asset, allowing China to signal "that it is not a technological parasite and is capable of offering the world a tool that brings a plus, because Beidou seems to be slightly more powerful than the American GPS," Hayward noted.

Beijing playing that card. BeiDou is, in fact, an important stone in the edifice of the famous New Silk Road, China’s vast international programme of infrastructure investment that mixes economic and diplomatic objectives. "In the documents relating to this programme, there was one specific to the development of BeiDou," Sourbès-Verger said. "As soon as Beijing projects its economic power beyond its borders, it needs a clean navigation system for its trains, boats and everything mobile."

Indeed, some observers, including the US government, consider BeiDou to be the cornerstone of the Space Silk Road. A vast network of satellites covering the entire planet appears to be an ideal complement to the many land and sea routes that Beijing has been putting in place for more than a decade.

The GPS with the golden eggs?

But there still needs to be customers for BeiDou, which, like the American GPS, is offered free of charge. "About 70 countries participating in the New Silk Road are already declared partners or have applied to be," researcher Emmanuel Meneut wrote in a note on BeiDou's cybersecurity challenges that was published in May 2020 by the Institute of International and Strategic Relations. For the time being, these are mainly Asian countries.

Beijing can also use BeiDou as a bonus gift to convince countries to join the New Silk Road. "It's not as appealing as China offering to build your 5G network, but if the Chinese authorities offer a more accurate version of BeiDou, it can help build a relationship of trust," Hayward said.

But China isn't just looking to make new friends with BeiDou. It hopes that its navigation system will become a very profitable business. "It's not the signal itself that's financially important, but all the derivatives and services that can be generated from it," Hayward said. American GPS led the way in that area with, in particular, digital mapping solutions and geolocation services on smartphones.

Beijing has already started to do the same. Services linked to BeiDou to better control port traffic or coordinate rescue operations in the event of natural disasters have already been exported to more than 100 countries, Chinese media reported in early June. China hopes that with the global roll-out of its navigation system, the sector could bring in $57 billion (€51bn) as early as this year, Reuters reported.

"It is certain that competition in this field will increase," concluded Sourbès-Verger. Moreover, the US Congress warned in a report published in November 2019 that China's ambitions in space through its satellite programme posed a growing threat to the United States, both economically and in terms of influence. That, of course, gave Donald Trump a new reason to be dissatisfied with Beijing.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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