WASHINGTON DC: Not every native technological accomplishment gets a shout out in Chinese Presidents Xi Jinpings annual New Year address.
In Xis remarks last year, Beidou — Chinas homegrown satellite — was bestowed the rhetorical honour a second time.
More recently, in June, China launched the 55th satellite of the Beidou Navigation Satellite System, which is now fully capable of providing services worldwide. Expect a third mention come 2021.
A MOMENTUOUS OCCASION, A LONG HISTORY OF DEVELOPING SPACE TECH
Whats more, the momentous occasion was capped off by a ceremony held a month later in Beijing celebrating Beidous completion and activation with top party officials in attendance, including Xi.
The terrestrial send-off of the final third-generation Beidou satellite marks a historic milestone in Chinas space and great-power ambitions. Its also the countrys greatest technological feat in a long-running strategy to decouple from the United States.
Beijing has aimed to reduce its reliance on foreign technologies through indigenous innovation policies for decades.
Under Deng Xiaoping, the 863 programme was one of the first of these policies implemented in 1986, accelerating funding, research, development, and acquisition of vital dual-use advanced technologies in domains like space.
Hu Jintao and Xi, respectively, both rolled out signature indigenous innovation policies, including Xis Made in China 2025 plan, which targets strategic industries like aerospace and involves discriminatory tactics, such as forced technology transfers.
GROWING CALLS FOR BIFURCATION
While decoupling has become a panacea for rebalancing bilateral relations in Washington, calls for a high-tech bifurcation across the Pacific are growing.
Vice-president of Renmin Universitys International Relations Department Di Dongsheng published an article in May 2020 advising Chinese leaders to decouple first. “To a certain extent, [China joining the US-led market system] was necessary, but one cannot walk the same path forever. One must assess the right time to leave”, Di wrote.
Like Di, a growing number of Chinese academics are voicing concerns about US–China interdependence. Many are urging their government to narrow its reliance on the United States and strengthen its scientific and technological autonomy.
BIG BENEFITS FOR MILITARY AND CIVILIAN USE
Named after the Big Dipper constellation, Beidou is perhaps Chinas most successful example of indigenous innovation.
The 35 active Beidou satellites not only provide global coverage — they also offer better positional accuracy in the Asia Pacific than the US-built Global Positioning Service (GPS). In contrast to GPS, Beidou also offers a text messaging service capable of sending up to 1,200 Chinese characters.
Beidous scientific progress has monumental implications for its military application. Created as a homegrown surrogate to GPS in 1994, Beidou addresses Beijings security concerns by providing the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) with reliable access to communications, weapons targeting and other critical functions.
According to a retired PLA general, the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis was a wake-up call on the urgency of deploying an independent satellite system after GPS signals guiding Chinese ballistic missiles were disrupted during the conflict.
Beidous civilian application factors heavily into Beijings economic pursuits. Nowhere is this more evident than in the booming satellite navigations downstream market consisting of products such as drones and services like smartphone apps.
According to an industry white paper, Chinas satellite navigation and location services market generated nearly US$49 billion in 2019 and is expected to earn US$58 billion in 2020.
GUARDING AGAINST ENCIRCLEMENT
At the nexus between geographic space and power politics, Beidou is a key undertaking in Chinas geopolitical infrastructure project and remedy to strategic encirclement: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“I think that for countries along the BRI — including allies of the United States — switching to Beidou would mean less US influence in the digital economy”, said Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst and author. Chinas neighbours such as Pakistan, Laos, and Thailand are among more than 30 BRI countries that have already adopted Beidou.
As Beidous acceptance expands, so too has Beijings international prestige. The latest Beidou satellite launch is as much a source of national pride as it is a wellspring for Chinas soft power.
Domestically, Chinese officials have set up Beidou education and training centres. Abroad, a bevvy of formal exchanges have been established with multilateral organisations and countries alike.