Middle Kingdom in a race for the centre

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 3:31am

At this stage of China's history there is something wonderfully resonant about Beijing's determination to acquire a satellite-based navigation system with its Beidou programme.

This week Beidou passed another milestone, when the service was offered for the first time to paying customers in the Asia-Pacific region, to which its system of at least 15 satellites in orbit is currently restricted.

Beidou, which takes its name from the Big Dipper - an important navigational beacon in ancient times - still has a long way to go before it can rival the American GPS system, which has 30 satellites providing a service that covers the entire globe for free.

Beidou was once a partner in the European Union's own Galileo system, which will also be offered for free once it gets running. But China's involvement lasted only until the strategic implications of this became clear to the European Commission in early 2008.

Strategic considerations are also the probable reasons for China's exclusion from Russia's Glonass system or India's attempt to establish a system of its own, called IRNSS, which is hoped to provide a regional service by 2014.

The uninterrupted stream of successful rocket launches by China in recent years should encourage its rivals in the race for space to believe that Beidou will become a global system by its target date of 2020, which was approved in 2003. Two months ago we reported that those involved in Beidou were worried that Beijing's new leadership may not approve the continuation of their programme, but those fears are probably misplaced, if you consider the prestige attached to the satellite systems by the world powers trying to set them up.

Indeed, to this day China still calls itself the Middle Kingdom, the most central of all nations under heaven. Unfortunately after it lost its superpower status to Britain and other powers a few centuries ago, China also lost its position as the Middle Kingdom - literally. You can see this for yourself by taking a look at a GPS receiver when next in Beijing. If China is the Middle Kingdom, how come zero degrees latitude does not run down the north-south axis on which the city was built, but instead through a town in a country far to the west - at least for now, anyway?