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Chinese BeiDou Satellite Network: SatNav or data collection?

Like most initiatives the Chinese weaponize products and services and use them subsequently for leveraging their preferred policy initiatives or narratives. The weaponization of some of the initiatives has been undertaken by China on countries in trade and tourism such as Australia, South Korea, Philippines etc when certain  decisions or advocacy by these countries were not in Chinese Interest. The other side of the Chinese coin of offering technology services is its ability to harness intelligence from farming of the vast data it collects.

Technology is an area in which the Chinese have been one of the leaders in research, development and production. China today is one of the leading exporters of technology based consumer and industrial products. But given its history of first eliminating competition by pricing, then enabling dependencies on it and finally extracting the desired outcomes from these in its favour by weaponizing. The evidence on this front was on “minerals—gallium and germanium—and more than three dozen related metals and other materials would be subject to unspecified export controls starting Aug. 1, by a Beijing’s Ministry. Its statement referred to safeguarding national security and interests and said some future export applications would require review by the government’s top body, the State Council.”

The next step in the weaponisation armoury of the Chinese would be services and the first on the list would be BeiDou satellite positioning system. It is estimated that the total output value of China’s satellite navigation and location-based service industry exceeded 470 billion yuan ($64 billion) in 2021, with a compound annual growth rate of over 20 percent. In the development of the system China states in the white paper on BDS(Beidou Navigation Satellite System) that it has maintained independence in the research, design, construction and operation of BDS, keeping core technologies in key fields firmly in their own hands. The white paper also states that in building a more powerful BDS, China will create its own smart and distinctive system for operation, maintenance and management, and gain a competitive edge in services in the world market. All these are fine if the intent was only for monetising of the application and services but nothing can be far from the previous behaviour of the Chinese state in their inter state relations.

The Chinese state as a part of a multi-dimensional, long-term strategy, uses BeiDou (BDS) and associated infrastructure to promote diplomatic and economic ties, facilitate the sale of
Chinese products, and potentially access user information and disrupt PNT data.

The premise of being not being dependent on any for development of the BDS and keeping key core technologies with itself as well as creating its own system of operations are the first step towards framework of weaponization by the Chinese state for as and when required actions.

The next and a crucial outcome of any collaborative technology service subscription such as the BDS,is its ability to keep track of the services used both historically as well as in real time. The Chinese BDS will have that ability for both system performance as well as surveillance needs if required.

The BDS has three segments for its operations, the space segment, a ground segment, and a user segment. The Beidou space constellation comprises of 45 satellites[ii], the ground segment broadly consists of the operation control system, the telemetry tracking and command system, satellite-based augmentation, and ground-based augmentation. The user segment consists of terminals and applications compatible with other navigation satellite systems.

Currently the Chinese BDS offers free services to users across the world, such as Positioning, navigation and timing, international search and rescue and precise point positioning to users in China and neighbouring areas with a cost-free high-precision positioning augmentation service.

Now reason for explaining the three segments of the BDS was to highlight the vulnerability which can be exploited in the system. The GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System is managed through a dedicated ground control system
with supporting components deployed across the globe. A ground control
system includes ground monitoring stations that track satellites, monitor their
transmissions, correct their PNT data, and send commands to the constellation.
Using atomic clocks, the ground monitoring stations enable correction of
atmospherically distorted satellite data. In 2008, the United States expanded the
GPS ground monitoring network from six to 16 stations, which helped improve
GPS accuracy by 10-15 percent. These ground monitoring stations are unevenly
dispersed, however, and they are especially rare in the Global South.
The Chinese government has Governments seek to enhance PNT data accuracy because even marginal
improvements can have significant implications for military and commercial purposes.

Chinese incentivises loans and free service, to countries for using the BeiDou system and bundling it with BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) for greater penetration and acceptability. It was further planned to set up at least 1000 base stations in the 10 ASEAN countries by 2020, the numbers are not clear as yet. BeiDou satellites
are more frequently observed than GPS satellites in 130 of 195 United Nations
member countries and in more than 100 of the 137 BRI participating countries.
To support this network, China has built 120 worldwide ground monitoring
stations abroad, whereas the United States has built just 11 abroad.

The proverb of flag follows trade is pretty apt encapsulation of the Chinese approach in the Global South to its foreign policy. The sale of advanced systems to the world markets such as trains, setting of power plants and associated infrastructure, communication, ports, agriculture, sale of weapons especially precision weapons, weather forecasting and many more projects associated with infrastructure development will be slowly embedded with BDS enabled technologies. It is matter of conjecture at present that Chinese company manufactured phones for daily use may be prioritising BDS over other GNSS based services for every day navigation. Therefore it is imperative that consumers and policy makers in countries are aware of the probability of manipulation of precision, timing and navigation (PNT) services by the Chinese thus increasing the control of these commercial projects by the Chinese state for subsequent exploitation in their relations.