25 January 2020

POLICY WATCH: China reaches for the sky with BeiDou sat-nav plan

China has set an aggressive target for its homegrown BeiDou regional satellite system, urging it on to challenge the dominance of the US-developed Global Positioning System (GPS). 

The goal is for the regional BeiDou Navigation Satellite System to have global coverage, a market value of 400 billion yuan (US$65.11 billion) and 800 million users by 2020.

The target, approved by the State Council on Wednesday as part of a long-term development plan for China’s satellite navigation industry, highlights the country’s determination to set its own standard for sensitive geographical information.

China has been working on its own system in the past decade to take account of its particular sensitivities. It treats information related to national defense and interest, such as the disputed Diaoyu Islands in the South China Sea, as sensitive and off-limits to the public.

For this reason, the government has been reluctant to open the sector to foreign players such as Google Inc and Apple Inc, forcing the two US firms to partner with local providers to offer location data to smartphone users.

China still relies on the GPS system for geographical information because of the American system’s broad coverage and place as the industry standard. But the government aims to push BeiDou-compatible phone, tablet and car-navigation products onto the mass market by 2020.

Those products will be supported by a BeiDou network of more than 30 satellites and a ground control operation system by 2020.

China is putting its money where its plan is. Earlier this year, the central government earmarked US$810 million for BeiDou’s development. The money will be used to build an industrial park that will house 30 to 50 companies focused on developing an ecosystem for BeiDou. Based in Tianjin, the industrial park is expected to welcome its first 20 companies in June.

Apart from boosting homegrown tech, Beijing wants to cut its reliance on foreign technology to minimize the risk of the United States barring access to its GPS system. It’s possible that diplomatic ties between the countries could deteriorate to this point, especially as both countries seek dominance in the region.

US-based independent defense news portal said the placement of an independent global navigation system (BeiDou) would give China a considerable strategic military advantage if hostilities break out in the Asia-Pacific region. “Most notably, such an advantage would be useful in countering foreign naval forces and with particularity those of the United States,” the portal said.

The central government and the military have been using BeiDou for transport, weather forecasts, fishing, forestry, telecommunications, hydrological monitoring and mapping since December. However, more than 95 percent of navigation terminals used in China still operate on GPS.

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]



    EJ Insight writer