What’s New: The idea that the U.S. can easily counter China’s efforts here, if we have focused leadership.
Why It’s Important:
- China has surpassed the U.S. and is eroding our influence.
- It also has a strategic and tactical advantage in PNT as it is not nearly as vulnerable to disruptions of space-base signals as we are.
- If the U.S. develops a resilient national PNT architecture it will involve a philosophy and tech stack that will:
- Greatly mitigate threats in the homeland
- Be something the U.S. could make available to other countries (benefiting U.S. companies), and
- Counter China’s soft power advantage with BeiDou
- Put the U.S. back in a leadership role for global PNT by enabling other nations to work with GPS, while also being able to provide essential PNT to their infrastructure and applications without relying on China, the US, or space.
What Else to Know: The author of the below article is president of the RNT Foundation.
China’s BeiDou GNSS is newer, has more features, is more accurate, and has more satellites in the skies of more nations than the venerable U.S. GPS, according to Sarah Sewall, Executive Vice President for Strategic Issues at IQT.
More than that, it is one example of “a new form of great power competition that most in the U.S. government don’t recognize,” she said. China is providing superior precision, navigation, and timing information to enhance its diplomatic, economic and military power and the United States cannot afford to cede this area of longstanding advantage.
In a recent paper published by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “China’s BeiDou: New Dimensions of Great Power Competition,” Sewall and co-authors Tyler Vandenburg and Kaj Malden outline their finding that China’s version of GPS is part of a longstanding effort to join the technological ranks of leading nations and leverage its capabilities to achieve geopolitical advantage in many areas.
“First, the global reach of BeiDou ensures that the Peoples’ Liberation Army is no longer dependent on another nation’s satnav. China’s economy — and those of other nations relying on BeiDou — can continue to function even if GPS is degraded or denied,” Sewall stated. “This may increase Beijing’s incentives to attack other national satellite capabilities.”
“BeiDou is also an economic driver for the Chinese economy and innovation. The output of China’s commercial space and navigation services industry has increased by tens of billions in the last decade, and new applications such as precision agriculture and self-driving cars show no sign of slowing,” Sewall continued.
The focus of Sewall’s paper, though, is the way BeiDou supports China’s Belt and Road and Digital Silk Road initiatives to gain influence and leverage around the world. She points out that in cases where BeiDou provides the most accurate positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) data, particularly in the global south, China may be able to hold much of another nation’s economy hostage.
The BeiDou constellation has more satellites than GPS or any other system. It also has more than ten times the monitoring stations in other countries than have been deployed for GPS. As a result, in many places, particularly in the developing world, BeiDou’s accuracy is much better.
Her assessment of BeiDou’s technical superiority received some unexpected support recently from a government advisory board on GPS. It reported that “GPS’s capabilities are now substantially inferior to those of China’s BeiDou,” and urged the administration to regain U.S. leadership in the field.
Being newer and more advanced makes it easier for China to encourage other nations to use BeiDou signals and purchase specialized equipment, especially when equipment purchases are heavily subsidized by the Chinese government.
This is important because systems such as GPS and BeiDou provide more than just directions to the nearest coffee shop. Their precise PNT signals are used for everything from synchronizing cellphone networks and industrial machine controls, to time stamping financial transactions, and coordinating electrical grids. GPS has been called “the silent utility” because signals are used in almost every technology.
“It is very difficult for government leaders in the developing world to turn down discounted infrastructure and opportunities for economic development,” Sewall said. “Even if they know that tying that infrastructure to Chinese signals may give the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] a future on/off switch to their economies.”
The West and the United States in particular, faces challenges confronting China’s efforts with BeiDou, according to Sewall.
“Many in government equate national power with military power, but that’s a narrow and insufficient formulation, particularly in the 21st century,” Sewall said. “American officials under appreciate China’s efforts to create commercial technology dependencies abroad. The United States has left a vacuum in the developing world that our industry is seemingly unable to fill in the face of competition from Chinese firms that are heavily supported by their government.”
Sewall describes a Chinese “tech stack” being exported that include BeiDou services as part of Belt and Road and Digital Silk Road. It is comprised of a hierarchy of equipment that includes network cables, servers, and cell phones.
“We don’t really have a democratic approach to help foreign nations make meaningful technology choices. We risk ceding global infrastructure to China if we fail to help Western firms offer their own integrated products and services to the developing world,” she said.
If we recognized this new form of great power competition, America could easily leap frog China in areas such as satellite navigation, said Patrick Diamond, a member of the President’s Advisory Board on GPS.
“We could provide higher accuracy GPS and make signals much more secure though internet delivered authentication,” Diamond said. “We could offer complementary terrestrial systems to GPS that would give other nations their own sovereign source of precise time and location while at the same time cooperating with our signals from space.”
“Competing effectively with China in the coming decades will require Americans to think more holistically,” Sewall said, “from realizing that GPS is not just about the military and space, to understanding that national power is more than the ability to prosecute war.”