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Beidou and the “Space Silk Road”

On Wednesday September 19, China launched two Beidou navigation satellites so as to join the network with the previously launched Beidou-3 navigation satellite. By 2020, Beidou is expected to boast of having 35 satellites covering the earth. This year alone, China has launched more than 10 Beidou satellites.

The Beidou navigation system has seen an increasing application in China. In Ningxia, farmers use it to provide navigation for unmanned agricultural machinery; in Inner Mongolia, herders in remote areas can send text messages through Beidou, and remotely control the water supply for livestock. In Beijing, 33,500 taxis and 21,000 buses have already installed Beidou chips. The Chinese government has set a goal to install Beidou chips in all new cars by 2020.

China is keen to upgrade its technological capabilities. After completing the global network by 2020, the Beidou system is expected to be a world-class navigation system and comparable to the U.S. GPS system.

Beidou was originally designed for the Chinese military to reduce its dependence on the U.S. GPS system. With the expansion of its coverage, business opportunities have also emerged.

Beidou’s ambitious expansion is coupled with China’s foreign policy. By the end of 2018, Beidou will cover the countries along the “Belt and Road,” and create a “Space Silk Road.” At present, Beidou covers 30 countries along the route, including Pakistan, Laos, and Indonesia. If these countries join the “Space Silk Road,” they could become dependent on the space services that Beijing provides, which will have more influence on their policies.

Three other satellite navigation systems are currently in place – Glonass in Russia, Galileo in Europe, and GPS in the United States. Blaine Curcio, founder of Hong Kong-based space and satellite consulting firm Orbital Gateway, said that we may see the world gradually split into “pro-China” and “pro-U.S.” camps. Those who are “pro-China” may be less likely to trust the satellite navigation services of the U.S. or the EU, and would therefore choose Beidou.

The Beidou chips have been widely deployed in Chinese made mobile phones, such as Xiaomi, Huawei and OnePlus, although Apple hasn’t incorporated Beidou in its latest iPhone which was released on September 12. Chinese official media said that this choice “does not rule out political reasons.”

Source: BBC Chinese, September 21, 2018