China's eyes in the sky need watching

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am


Being able to pinpoint the location of an object on the earth's surface is one of the most powerful technologies a government can have. China's announcement that its Beidou satellite navigational system has become operational symbolically moves the nation forward on the world stage. But the economic, military and political clout that accompanies such a development is not as instantaneous as pressing a button: they come only with reliability, a proven track record and judicious decision-making. Reputation and confidence rest on perceived independence, testing and transparency.

China had every reason to develop Beidou, designed to rival the dominant, US government-run GPS (global positioning system) and those created by Russia and the European Union. It will cut the nation's dependence on GPS, which Washington can deactivate at any time. That is a powerful capability from a military standpoint, but is also highly significant with so much of the world's transport and telecommunications reliant on satellite positioning. Putting such capabilities in national rather than foreign hands makes perfect sense.

Work on Beidou began 11 years ago and the launch of the 10th satellite earlier this month makes its commercial use possible. Beijing plans to put six more satellites into orbit next year, making it available throughout most of Asia and envisages the system will go global in 2020 with the 35th successful launch. With civilian users promised correct positioning information accurate to the nearest 10 metres, measurement of speeds within 0.2 metres per second and synchronisation of clocks to an accuracy of 0.02 millionths of a second, performance is considerably better than that offered by GPS. A separate military system is said to be even more accurate.

From a Chinese perspective, there are potentially huge commercial and military pluses. But such accuracy could also have a diplomatic cost if not managed carefully. China's limited transparency about its military expansion has created suspicions among neighbours and rivals and the new capabilities have already prompted concerns about foreign defence installations and navy and aircraft movements. Some will be reticent to use a system providing accurate information about a user's location that is operated by a government with a record of prying on its citizens.

Building confidence takes time and comes through creating a reliable product and a trusting culture. With technology, that means checking, testing and rechecking until all bugs have been ironed out. From a commercial perspective, that is essential for Beidou to succeed. But there are dimensions of openness and transparency that have to be better addressed if the navigational system is to be widely adopted beyond China's borders.