China announced the activation of Beidou, its alternative to the GPS navigation system. The system is currently composed of ten satellites and provides positioning, navigation and timing services in China and surrounding areas. According to the Chinese plans, coverage should extend to all the Far East by 2012 and to all the world by 2020 thanks to a total of thirtyfive satellites after the remaining ones will be placed in orbit in the coming years.
With the Beidou system, China takes a big step up in the autonomy from the GPS system, which is an American technology. Let’s keep in mind that it’s a system developed by the American Department of Defense that was made available for civilian use by order of then President Ronald Reagan in 1983, after a Korean airliner went out of its route trespassing the USSR airspace and was shot down by Soviet aviation.
Today, the GPS system is freely available all over the world but is maintained by the U.S.A. government so in case of war it’s clear that Americans might block its use.
Despite the peaceful declarations, obviously China preferred to create its own alternative system that would allow its army for example to target its missiles against Taiwan if it decides to attack the island.
Actually in 2003 China joined the Galileo project, another project to build a network alternative to the GPS system started by the European Union and soon extended to other countries in various continents, from Israel to Morocco to South Korea.
The launch of the first satellite of the Galileo program, the GIOVE-A (Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element) occurred on December 28, 2005 but less than a year later China abandoned the project to develop its own Beidou system. The collaboration was no longer welcome on both sides because at that point the European Union considered China a security problem. In fact, it’s likely that the know-how accumulated during the collaboration with the Galileo project was used in developing the Beidou system.
The fact that an independent system can also be used for military purposes is confirmed by the tension that existed between the U.S.A. and the nations that developed the Galileo system, although they’re mostly American allies.
The U.S.A. was particularly concerned about the cooperation of China and now that the Beidou system has started operating and is expanding, the U.S.A. military will certainly take that into account in updating their strategies.
The Galileo system was in danger of failing and its development was delayed because of disputes between member states but its importance is confirmed by the considerable resources invested by China for the Beidou system and also from those invested by the U.S.A. to upgrade the GPS system. This new Cold War isn’t official but it’s clear that satellite control of the territory is crucial for the great powers.