China’s Space Silk Road

On May 4, 2018, China launched a Long March 3B rocket from its Xichang Satellite Launch center, carrying an Apstar-6C communications satellite into space. The satellite is part of China’s BeiDou (BěiDǒu 北斗, named after the Big Dipper asterism) Navigation Satellite System (BDS) and China’s Space Silk Road.

According to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), China is expected to conduct 10 BeiDou launches in 2018 to achieve the BDS coverage of Belt and Road countries by end of the year.

China on the way to space domination
Picture Credit: Popular Science

What is China’s Space Silk Road?

Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) are the foundation of geo-spatial positioning and thus important for providing position, navigation and tracking, for both civil and military purposes. By today, only the U.S. (GPS), Russia (GLONASS), the EU (Galileo) and China (BDS) have own operational global navigation satellite systems.

The idea of an own Chinese GNSS dates back to the 1980s. The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) project was formally launched in 1994 and started to become operational in 2000 with the first generation Beidou-1 system. As a national key technical project, BDS is of significant importance for China’s Going Global strategy and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Within the BRI, BDS is a part of China’s Space Silk Road, a concept which was introduced in 2014 by the International Alliance of Satellite Application Services (ASAS). The Space Silk Road aims at creating an entire range of space capabilities including satellites, launch services, and ground infrastructure and at supporting related industries and service providers going global.

BDS is developed by China, and dedicated to the world to serve the development of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. (White paper China’s Beidou Navigation Satellite System)

The 3 steps to China’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)

On June 16, 2016, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China published the white paper “China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System“, stating that BDS serves the needs of the country’s national security and economic and social development. As a space infrastructure of national significance, BDS should provide “all-time, all-weather and high-accuracy positioning, navigation and timing services to global users”. By 2018, BDS should be offering an alternative to the American GPS for countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and by 2020 should be fully in service, providing global coverage. China`s path to develop a fully operational GNSS follows a three-step logic:

  1. BeiDou – Generation 1 (total of 3 satellites) was started in 1994 and became operational in 2000, offering commercial use in China and neighboring regions.
  2. BeiDou – Generation 2/COMPASS (total of 14 satellites) was started in 2004 and became operational in 2011, offering commercial use across the Asia-Pacific region.
  3. BeiDou – Generation 3 (total of 35 satellites) was started in 2009, providing global coverage by 2020.

The aims of China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System

  1. Ensuring independence from U.S. GPS
  2. Supporting national defense and military purposes
  3. Improving the accuracy of civil and military surveying, tracking and mapping of movement and transport activities
  4. Improving satellite based communication and navigation
  5. Improving weather forecast and disaster relief
  6. Improving emergency response and rescue systems
  7. Improving the accuracy of timing & synchronization
  8. Supporting China’s Going Global strategy and the development of the BRI
  9. Supporting breakthroughs in key technologies (e.g. BDS based chips, modules, antennae)
  10. Fostering of independent BDS industrial chains
  11. Integrating the development of the BDS and Internet+, big data, and cloud computing
  12. Strengthening China’s position in the development of global satellite launch and navigation technology
  13. Strengthening the global expansion of China’s BDS based device industry
  14. Strengthening the global expansion of China’s private location-based service providers
  15. Improving the accuracy of location-based services (e.g. ride-hailing, bike-sharing, delivery services, wearables)
  16. Supporting BDS related industries (e.g. aviation and drones, high-speed trains, autonomous-driving, fleet management, smart agriculture, drones, wearables)
  17. Supporting BDS based “smart city” applications (e.g. traffic management, public services)
  18. Improving infrastructure facility construction and monitoring
  19. Improving broadcasting (internet and multimedia services)

The Space Silk Road is important for the Belt and Road Initiative

BDS is important for China to become independent from U.S. GPS but also to gain higher shares in the growing GNSS market, including related devices and services.

BeiDou is the backbone of China`s drone industry
Picture Credit: Mitch Nielsen

Satellite navigation is a flourishing business. The GNSS market comprises products (receivers and devices) and services using GNSS-based positioning. In particular due to the growth of location based services but also “smart city” or smart agriculture applications, wearables and technologies such as high-speed trains, drones or autonomous driving, the global GNSS market will grow rapidly. According to the GNSS market report 2017, the primary region of global market growth will be Asia-Pacific, which is forecasted to grow from 1.9 billion GNSS devices (mainly smartphones) in 2015 to 4.3 billion devices in 2025, which is more than the EU and North America combined.

The overall output value of the GNSS and location-based services market in China alone reached USD 33.24 billion in 2016 and is expected to grow to about USD 62 billion by 2020.

Estimated Revenue of China`s satellite navigation market
Units: Billion USD

China`s goal is to boost production and export of BDS based products and related services and increase the share of BDS in the global GNSS mass market. This covers mainly the sectors of smart phones, vehicle-borne terminals and wearable devices. According to The State Council Information Office, by Mid of 2017, more than30 million chips which run the BeiDou system have been sold to manufacturers of mobile phones and other systems which use navigation technology. BeiDou’s high-precision board cards and antennas, for industrial use, are being exported to more than 70 countries and regions, over 30 of which are along the Belt and Road Initiative.

Our priority is to expand BDS from China to the frontline of the Belt and Road Initiative, and Optics Valley BeiDou is a pioneer. China-made smartphones, such as Huawei smartphones, will be good platforms for BDS to go overseas as they carry Chinese chips. (Li Deren, professor state key laboratory, Wuhan University)

The Space Silk Road goes global

More than 30 Belt and Road countries, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Indonesia, have signed agreements to embed BDS domestically. Many authorize China to build ground stations, which improves BDS’s accuracy and reliability. Since many years, China plays an important role in the global satellite launch industry but the promotion of BDS and related services in countries along BRI is a new chapter in China`s space infrastructure development. The implementation of BDS related infrastructure in countries along BRI can be considered as the backbone foundation for gaining higher shares in the GNSS market and related services but has also geo-strategic implications.

Pakistan’s reliance on US satellite navigation statement GPS ends as now China’s domestically developed BeiDou Navigation Satellite System has started to cover entire Pakistan. (Times of Islamabad)

China is an established player in the global satellite launch industry and is frequently carrying satellites for  countries such as Algeria, Bolivia, Nigeria or Venezuela into orbit. To expand BDS infrastructure and to improve BDS services, China set up development cooperation plans with various countries.

Selected Space Silk Road cooperations (own compilation)

Algeria: Cooperation plan to apply BDS (China`s Beidou Navigation Satellite System)
Brunei: Application of BDS in smart city construction and tourism
Cambodia: Cooperation plan to apply BDS and satellite launch framework agreement
Egypt: Cooperation plan to apply BDS
Indonesia: Application of BDS in maritime positioning and navigation information
Laos: Application of BDS for precision agriculture
League of Arab States (LAS): Agreement to promote the use of BDS across the Middle East
Malaysia: Cooperation plan to apply BDS, BDS ASEAN Data and service center
Morocco: Cooperation plan to apply BDS
Myanmar: Application of BDS in land planning and channel supervision
Nigeria: Cooperation Plan
Pakistan: Application of BDS in transport and port administration; Established regional Beidou Navigation Satellite system network
Russia: Plans to integrate BDS and GLONASS
Thailand: BDS Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS); Plans for a China-ASEAN (BDS) science and technology city
Tunisia: First Chinese overseas BDS center established (China-Arab States BDS/GNSS Center)
Saudi-Arabia: Cooperation plan to apply BDS
Singapore: Cooperation plan to apply BDS
Sri Lanka: BDS Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS)
United Arab Emirates: Cooperation plan to apply BDS
U.S.: Joint Statement on Civil Signal Compatibility and Interoperability

China’s BDS and the Space Silk Road are important and complementing components of the global navigation satellite system, increasing position, navigation and tracking accuracy.  At the same time China’s Space Silk Road is clearly of significant strategic importance for the Belt and Road Initiative. For China, the launch of satellites and the provision of Navigation Satellite System services are tools to gain influence in third countries and to eye on shares in regional satellite navigation industry and service markets. BDS and China’s goal of its widespread implementation and application in Belt and Road countries is influencing the balance of power, in particular in the Asia-Pacific region. The Space Silk Road is another step forward in making space a more important part of geopolitical competition.

Sources and more information here:
APT Satellite Company Limited
BDS website
China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC)
China Academy of Space Technology (CAST)
China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC)
China National Space Administration (CNSA)
China Satellite Communication Co Ltd.
China Satellite Global Services Alliance (CSGSA)
China Satellite Navigation Office (CSNO)
Global Navigation Satellite System and Location-based Services Association of China
Institute of Space & Earth Information Science (ISEIS)
International Alliance of Satellite Application Service (ASAS)
New China
SpaceWatch Middle East
Theworldin
TheNews
The State Council Information Office of The People`s Republic of China
UniStrong Science and Technology Co.
Wuhan Opics Valley BeidDou Holding Group Co.,Ltd.

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