China’s New BeiDou Navigation System More for Publicity Than Real Usage, Say Experts

August 16, 2020 Updated: August 16, 2020

China on July 31 officially commissioned its BeiDou satellite navigation system, which it hopes will rival the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS). However, there are experts who believe it serves more of a publicity purpose for the Chinese regime than real-life application.

According to the South China Morning Post, BeiDou spokesman Ran Chengqi said China’s “conquering of core technologies” was evidence of the country’s self-reliance. Speaking in Beijing on Aug. 3, he said more than 500 key components for the BeiDou system had been “100 percent made in China.”

China has exported its BeiDou basic products to more than 120 countries and regions, the spokesperson said back in December 2019, according to state-run media Xinhua.

Lee Cheng-Hsiu, a researcher for Taiwan-based think tank National Policy Foundation, expressed his doubt about Ran’s claim that the system contained “100 percent made in China” parts.

In an interview with The Epoch Times, he said that during the 20-plus years of BeiDou’s development, it has relied heavily on technical support from the United States, specifically in the research and development of microchips.

Considering current tensions in the China-U.S. relationship, he said, “The United States may restrict the use, cancel authorization, and even shut down key technologies. It remains a question whether the BeiDou system can operate normally.”

He further pointed out that China does not own the technology in producing the requisite chips. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world leader in integrated circuit chips manufacturing, will halt its supplies to Huawei in September, in order to comply with a U.S. ban on global vendors from using U.S. technology to produce components for the Chinese tech giant.

BeiDou Is Meant for Missile Positioning

In an interview with The Epoch Times, former Huawei engineer Jin Sun warned that the primary purpose of the BeiDou system is for military use. He added that in advancing Beijing’s military operations in the South China Sea, the autonomous satellite positioning system is an important part of its development of missile systems, and is primarily used for China’s missile guidance systems.

Taiwanese researcher Lee agreed. “The accuracy of the system is yet to be verified, but it’s developed for the military purpose, just like the GPS was meant for the military,” he said.

According to the SCMP report, BeiDou has been providing basic global navigation services since 2018, but the completion of its satellite launches will greatly increase its positioning accuracy—from 10 meters (33 feet) to 10 centimeters (4 inches). GPS, which is owned by the U.S. government and operated by the U.S. Air Force, is accurate to about 30 centimeters.

Jin believes that the regime’s touting of the BeiDou system is to show off its military strength. “The competition [between the United States and China] in the space field is foreseeable,” he said.

CCP Space Race

China’s Mars mission, Tianwen-1, was launched on July 23. Lee commented, “The Chinese Communist Party has invested heavily in the development of space science and technology over the past ten years and intends to compete with the United States in the field of space, space stations, and space exploration.”

However, as to how long this competition can be sustained, he’s not optimistic.“When the Soviet Union launched its first artificial satellite into space in 1957, it stimulated the U.S. government to establish NASA to develop space technology. After decades of competition, the Soviet Union’s space development finally ended due to insufficient funds,” he said.

Comparing the space competition as a 26-mile marathon as opposed to a 100-meter or 200-meter sprint, Lee said, “It’s questionable whether China will have enough funding, manpower, and technology to sustain this long competition with the United States.”

Domestic Propaganda Purposes

“In fact, in order to keep up in the public eye with the United States, the regime intends to exaggerate,” Lee analyzed.

He gave the example of aircraft carriers that China recently said it would build on its own—which has not yet been completed. “As far as the United States is concerned, it is all on paper,” Lee said.

The BeiDou satellites and aircraft carriers achieve “the effect of internal propaganda, [which] is far greater than the real effect, and it is far greater than any threat it poses to the United States and other countries,” Lee added.

Sales Tactic

As for the claim that China has exported its BeiDou basic products to more than 120 countries and regions, Jin Sun said it’s likely an exaggeration.

“BeiDou’s practical use in China is not visible.” He believed that the regime would try its best to attract buyers in other parts of the world in the same way it promoted Huawei’s 5G network equipment.

“It could be a sales tactic to promote the system. Some countries might use it as a backup system. However, in reality, it won’t be able to replace the GPS of the United States or Russia’s Glonass [satellite navigation system],” he said.

If the CCP wants to compete with American products in the market, it must provide more accurate positioning. “The U.S. GPS has not only been developed for a long time, its accuracy is the most trusted out of the four systems in the world,” he said. BeiDou, GPS, Glonass, and the European Union’s Galileo are the main four systems.

At a press conference of China’s State Council Information Office on Aug. 3, the regime claimed that BeiDou played a significant role in the country’s flood-control operations. Beijing claimed that debris flow can be predicted through real-time deformation monitoring.

Former Huawei engineer Jin debunked those claims. He stressed that Beidou’s accuracy was still limited, and that BeiDou was designed primarily for military purposes.