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The CCP’s Beidou Brings an Alternative to GPS, but at What Cost?

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: November 30, 2020
chinese beidou system began operation in 2011 and was completed in 2011 serveing hundreds of capitals around the world concerns about chinese communist party's ambitions
The Beidou Positioning and Navigation System is the Chinese answer to America’s long-dominant GPS coverage. (Image: AGI)

In June 2020, China launched the 55th and final satellite composing a state-operated constellation known as the Beidou Positioning and Navigation System (BDS). The network gives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a fully independent and self-sustaining global navigation system that rivals and offers an alternative to the well-known U.S. Space Force-maintained Global Positioning System (GPS). 

Beidou’s chief designer, Yang Changfeng, a member of the CCP’s top political advisory body, told The Diplomat: “The satellite-based augmentation system of the BDS will provide high-precision and high-integrity services to users with meter, decimeter and centimeter-level real-time positioning.”

China, which first launched the Beidou system in 2011, now offers use of BDS to the entire world on an open, free-of-charge basis, touting a very high degree of accuracy that boasts to be critical for economic and military space infrastructure.

In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a food delivery app called Deliver Addis has soared in popularity, marshaling food deliveries through a chaotic city of more than 4.8 million people as measures deployed to fight COVID-19 hamper normal activities.

Deliver Addis is powered, not by GPS, but by the Beidou Positioning and Navigation System. 

Frequent observation

A recent report by Nikkei Asia Weekly used data from U.S. satellite receiver company Trimble and showed that capital cities of 165 of 195 major countries, amounting to a staggering 85 percent, are observed more frequently by BDS satellites than they were under the GPS technology, kindling concerns that the CCP’s ambitions with the BDS are more than just economic.

Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, for example, has more than 30 of the 55 BDS constellation’s satellites continually transmitting to the city — more than twice as many as the U.S.-maintained GPS system. It is believed much of this continuous transmission is caused by inexpensive smartphones supplied by Chinese vendors.

The U.S. Global Positioning Satellite system. (Image: NASA)
The U.S. Global Positioning Satellite system. (Image: NASA)

The CCP has marketed Beidou, which means “Big Dipper” in Chinese, as being as much as 100-times more accurate than the existing GPS system in order to entice countries and industries who currently depend on GPS for a competitive advantage to transition away from GPS. Beidou also claims to provide a better Internet and technology experience to Asian, African, and Latin American countries as the technological evolution to the Internet of Things, self-driving cars, 5G, and drones plays out. 

However, the consequence of reliance on a Communist Party-controlled positioning and navigation system is that countries, corporations, and individuals who rely on BDS will have to be careful not to anger a notoriously fickle and easily agitated regime. Topics like the South China Sea, Taiwan, Tibet, and the persecution of Falun Gong may spark the Party’s revocation of access to BDS at any time, similar to how the CCP has aggressively tariffed the import of Australian goods in recent months as retaliation for the Australian government’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, calling for an investigation into the Chinese origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Beidou is a must for us’

Communist China now having a standalone alternative to GPS also fosters major security concerns internationally. 

In 1996 during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired three missiles at locations on the Taiwan Strait in retaliation for Taiwan’s motions towards formal independence from the communist regime. One of the missiles hit about 18 kilometers from Taiwan’s Keelung military base, while the PLA actually lost track of the other two missiles completely. China has always asserted that this was due to the U.S. cutting off the GPS signal, which China was reliant on for missile tracking, to the Pacific region at the time of the attack.

A senior colonel in the PLA told South China Morning Post in 2009 about the Third Crisis: “It was a great shame for the PLA… an unforgettable humiliation. That’s how we made up our mind to develop our own global [satellite] navigation and positioning system, no matter how huge the cost.”

The Beidou system gives the Chinese military a greast communications and fire-control boost. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

“Beidou is a must for us. We learned it the hard way,” the PLA colonel said.

China’s state-run media claims that Beidou is now being used by more than half of the world’s countries, with its navigation products being exported to more than 120 countries across the globe. 

While GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, and EU’s Galileo primarily act as beacons that beam out signals to devices across the world, Beidou, by comparison, acts as a two-way communication system, allowing the CCP to determine the precise location of any device on Earth connected to its system. 

“All cellular devices, as I understand their function, can be tracked because they continually communicate with towers or satellites,” said Dr. Larry Wortzel in an interview with Voice of America. 

“So just as here in the U.S., there are concerns that police or federal agencies can track people by their cellphones. That can happen. The same is true of a cellphone relying on BeiDou, Glonass and Galileo. The question is: Who are you concerned about being tracked by?”

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