The shutdown of Chinese facilities earlier this year due to COVID-19 showed just how much the world’s products and businesses are dependent on them, perhaps much to the chagrin of the US. That said, the drama surrounding US export bans against Huawei also revealed some of China’s own dependence on US and international technologies. One of the lesser-known dependencies is on global navigation systems, commonly (and inaccurately) referred to as GPS. As of today, China may no longer need to rely on the US-based system as it successfully launched the last two satellites to complete its own Beidou navigation system.
“GPS” has been commonly used to refer to global location-based systems but it is actually just one of the three systems in use today, one that is owned by the US. Russia has GLONASS, Europe has Galileo, and now China has its own Beidou.
Named after the Big Dipper constellation, this latest batch of satellites is actually the third system China has launched since 2000. It is also the biggest, now comprising of 35 successfully launched satellites, 30 of which are currently in operation. That many satellites, plus the remaining 12 from Beidou-2, now allows China to have global coverage for its satellite-based services, particularly navigation.
Beidou is China’s “Plan B”, allowing its citizens and, more importantly, its military to still have navigation capabilities even if it gets blocked from using the US’ GPS system. It is, however, also the country’s way of boasting that it, too, has the capacity to provide such technologies and services on a global scale. Given how important location-based services have become today, that’s definitely a critical capability.
It is also China’s way of showing that it, too, can become a superpower in space. The launch of a critical satellite constellation is just a small part of China’s growing ambitions that also include a permanent space station, a trip to the Moon, and a rover on Mars.