In 1994 China set about developing its own satellite-based global timing and navigation system. Like all of China's accomplishments in space, the project has taken a methodical and incremental approach; in this case involving three phases providing national, then regional, and now moving to global coverage. The first two phases were largely experimental and provided China with the confidence to establish the operational system called the BaiDou Satellite System (BDS).On 19 June 2016, China launched the 23rd satellite in a constellation that will have 35 satellites when fully operational in 2020.

On 17 June, two days before the most recent launch, the Chinese Satellite Navigation Office released a white paper about BDS. The white paper outlined the development of BDS, provided some basic information about the functionality of the system and emphasised China's determination to integrate BDS with other similar systems such at the US Global Positioning System (GPS).

The South China Morning Post reported Ran Chengqi, Director of the China Satellite Navigation Office, as saying that the operational BDS will deliver orders of magnitude improvements in positional accuracy from approximately 10 metres in the current experimental system to centimeter accuracy in the operational system. Ran was also reported as having said that BDS will improve Chinese intelligence capabilities in the South China Sea.  

Unlike other satellite navigation systems such as GPS, BeiDou can be used directly for intelligence gathering. A BeiDou terminal on the ground can communicate with satellites to receive instructions or send out information, using a special channel controlled by system operators in Beijing.

The communications channel permits short messages to be passed to higher headquarters about activities that might otherwise go unreported from lighthouses, or ships whose positions are known.

A question is whether this capability alters the strategic calculus in the South China Sea? The answer is no. Intent more than capability is the key determinant in these congested and increasingly contested waters. At the operational level, the BDS may prove to be a stabilising influence because it should allow Chinese decision-makers to have improved situational awareness, thereby reducing uncertainty, ambiguity, misunderstanding and miscalculation. This may prove to be critical in times of real tension between nations with competing interests in the area.

When BeiDou is fully operational, there will remain for quite some time an asymmetry between the power projection capabilities of China and the US. Certainly within the Western Pacific, China is becoming a significant maritime power, capable of mounting a serious challenge to the supremacy that the US has enjoyed since the end of World War Two. However, only the US has the capability to project power to all corners of the Earth.

More interesting questions arise when the space environment is considered. Now that BDS is almost fully functional, the Chinese are likely to become as dependent on secure and assured access to the timing signals from that system as is the US on GPS. Parity, previously missing between the US and China, is now emerging in the space environment that may well work to constrain the behaviours of all space faring nations, but especially China, Russia and the US. All have a vested interest in ensuring that the outer space environment remains accessible for their own security and economic well-being, let alone for that of others.

Sovereign control of BDS, or any satellite system for that matter, is one thing. Maintaining space as a commons in which all comers can operate safely and securely is something else. Outer space is a harsh but fragile environment that is readily disturbed. Such disturbances, irrespective of whether they are caused by natural phenomena or human activity, are likely to affect all satellites more or less equally. Coronal mass ejections from the sun are an example of the former, and electro-magnetic pulse weapons are an example of the latter.

In space, and with particular reference to BDS, China is actively cooperating with other nations that operate global navigation satellite systems including the US (GPS), Russia (GLONASS), Europe (Galileo), Japan (Quasi Zenith Satellite System – QZSS) and India. China is well aware of the importance of ensuring that BDS, at least for civil applications, can contribute to the system of systems that the sum of the individual systems represents. The aim is to develop low-cost receivers that can process or integrate the signals from any available navigation satellite, including those in the BDS constellation. For a system of systems to function optimally, the operators of each of them need quite detailed information about the accuracy and reliability of the systems of other contributors in order to compensate for individual satellites that may be providing inaccurate or false readings. There is an imperative to cooperate and the Chinese would seem committed to doing so.

Australia has a direct interest in promoting cooperation between the operators of all global navigation satellite systems, including the Chinese, for two compelling reasons:

  • to make best use of all available data in meeting our sovereign and international legal obligations over the 15% of the Earth's surface for which we are responsible; and
  • to do what we can reasonably do as a middle power to ensure that the near Earth space environment (where satellites operate), is an environment in which satellites of all types may operate safely and securely.

To the extent that the three major spacefaring nations — the US, China and Russia — are deeply dependent on assured access to the signals from their own satellites for civil and military purposes, the propensity for any one of these nations to act precipitately in space is reduced. The logic is not dissimilar to that of Mutually Assured Destruction that applied during the Cold War.

This state of affairs may not be ideal, but if deterrence holds the line while a robust and enduring international regulatory regime for managing the space environment is brokered, then that is in the interests of all.

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