The challenge facing China's satellite system

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am

As China modernises its military, other major powers call on Beijing to be more transparent about its intentions. There is nothing opaque, however, about the accelerated programme of space satellite launchings for the Beidou-2 navigation system or the intention behind it.

Ultimately it is to achieve global self-reliance in navigation, including guidance of hi-tech weapons systems. Communications and pinpoint-accurate navigation are critical to modern defence systems. Space technology has redefined them, as evidenced by the world's dependence on the US Global Positioning System.

This includes Chinese troops and naval vessels. For the People's Liberation Army, a home-grown equivalent, without fear of being denied access, is integral to a credible global security posture. The fast-tracking of Beidou-2 is a reminder of the danger of a military space race. It will take wise statesmanship on the part of all nations to ensure that it is for the benefit of mankind.

The launching last week of the sixth satellite to be added to the Beidou-2 system is the fourth this year, with eight more expected next year, putting it on target to cover the Asia-Pacific region by 2012. The aim is global coverage with 35 satellites in 10 years. A home-grown satellite navigation system will also bring economic benefits and expand Beijing's political influence. Officials say it will not only be available to militaries for a small fee but also free to civilian users. It will therefore compete with the US commercially, creating a market worth tens of billions to navigation product companies.

China is also a partner in the development of the European Union's Galileo satellite navigation system. But as a rising power in an emerging region, it has a legitimate case for an independent system. The GPS was a navigation revolution comparable with the invention of the compass, except that it is controlled by one power. Like the European nations backing Galileo, China aims for enhanced security from an alternative network of positioning satellites. The challenge for the central government is to convince regional powers that this development poses no threat.