China launched on Monday its last satellite needed to make its Beidou navigation system an alternative anywhere in the world to the US GPS and other European Galileo. For Beijing, this satellite program is crucial in more ways than one.
For China, the “new silk windows” also go through space. Beijing managed to place 35e and the last satellite in its national navigation system, Beidou, in orbit Monday, June 23. A performance that allows it to compete globally with American GPS, the European alternative Galileo and Glonass, the solution developed by the Russians.
It is the culmination of a long-term project, started in 1983 under the impetus of Chen Fangyun, an engineer who was nicknamed “Chinese satellite father”. But it was not until the early 2000s that Beidou really took off, with the establishment of a network of satellites that could provide a landmark system for the Chinese territory. “The Chinese have understood that navigation systems create a technological revolution in the military by observing the effectiveness of US air strikes during the Iraq war of 2003,” said Keith Hayward, research director at the Royal Aviation Society, who worked on the Chinese aviation industry, contacted by France24.
A guarantee of autonomy
Twelve years later, Beijing managed to extend its coverage of Beidou to the entire Asian continent. From a military-inspired project, this unit also became an economic tool. “These satellites are essential to China because they allow it to offset the lack of communications infrastructure on the ground to support its development,” explains France24 Isabelle Sourgès-Verger, CNRS space policy specialist and author of a book on space conquest of China.
Put 35 into orbitesatellite is now making Beidou operational worldwide. A decisive step when it comes to Chinese ambitions to become a force at the forefront of innovation. “Most of Beijing’s priority technologies – Internet of Things, 5G or autonomous cars, for example – require the use of a navigation system,” says Isabelle Sourgès-Verger. And they must be able to operate on all continents.
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The effort is too important to depend on a technology “manufactured in the United States”. “The development of Beidou gives the Chinese a substantial autonomy. Regardless of military or civilian point of view, you do not want to depend on a country [les États-Unis, NDLR] who, in the event of a major crisis, may decide to suspend access to navigation data, “concludes Keith Hayward.
Proof that “Beijing is not a technical parasite”
It is also a diplomatic asset. China thus signals “that it is not a technical parasite and can offer a tool to the world that provides an advantage, since Beidou seems to be slightly better than the US GPS”, the British expert emphasizes.
And Beijing intends to use this card. In fact, Beidou is an important stone brought to the construction of the famous “new silk roads”, this huge program of investment in infrastructure outside China that mixes economic and diplomatic goals. “In the documents surrounding this program, there was a specific to the development of Beidou,” emphasizes Isabelle Sourgès-Verger. Nothing can be more logical: “From the moment Beijing projects its economic strength beyond its borders, it needs a clean navigation system for its trains, its boats and everything that is mobile,” confirms the French researcher.
It’s no coincidence that some, including us government, consider Beidou as the cornerstone “of the spacecraft”. A large network of satellites covering the entire planet seems to be a perfect complement to the many land and sea routes that Beijing has implemented for more than a decade.
The golden egg GPS?
But there must still be customers for his Beidou, which, like the US GPS unit, are offered for free. “About 70 countries participating in” Silk Roads “are already declared partners [de ce système de navigation, NDLR] or have applied, “said researcher Emmanuel Meneut in one take note of Beidou’s cybersecurity challenges, published in May 2020 by the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. Currently, it is mainly Asian countries.
Beijing can also use it as a bonus gift to convince countries that are hesitant to join the “new side windows”. “It’s not as interesting as if China offers to build your 5G network, but if the Chinese authorities offer a more accurate version of Beidou [comme avec le GPS, il y a, par exemple, plusieurs niveaux de précision au système de navigation, selon le type d’utilisation, NDLR], it can help build a relationship of trust, says Keith Hayward.
But China is not just trying to make new “friends” with Beidou. She hopes that her navigation system will be a very profitable business. “It’s not the signal as such that is, economically, important, but all the derivatives and services that can be the result of it,” assures Keith Hayward. The US GPS has led the way in this area with special digital folder solutions or all geolocation services on smartphones.
Beijing has already begun to do the same. Services linked to Beidou to better control port traffic or coordinate rescue efforts in the event of a natural disaster have already been exported to more than a hundred countries, Chinese media said in early June. China hopes that this sector, with the global implementation of its navigation system, will be able to raise $ 57 billion this year, Reuters reports.
“It is certain that competition in this area will be strengthened,” concludes Isabelle Sourgès-Verger. In a report published in November 2019, the US Congress has warned that Chinese ambitions in space through its satellite program pose an increasing threat to the United States, both in terms of economic and influence. What gives Donald Trump another reason for dissatisfaction with Beijing?