beidou china

Written by Zainab Imran 7:34 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

Will Chinese BeiDou Surpass American GPS?

Zainab Imran provides a detailed comparison of two navigation systems: the Chinese BeiDou and the American GPS. BeiDou is a recent development in the global navigation system, and this seems to be a new hegemonic strategy by China to deal with its contenders. Named after the Chinese term for the Big Dipper constellation, BeiDou has been in development since the 1990s and has been operational globally since 2020.
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Ms Zainab Imran is a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at NDU Islamabad.


China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System has been gaining ground in recent years, with its proponents claiming that it has surpassed the American GPS in terms of accuracy and reliability. But is it really better than the GPS, which has been the global standard for satellite navigation for decades?

First, let’s take a closer look at how the two systems work. Both Beidou and GPS are satellite-based navigation systems that use a network of satellites to provide location and timing information to users around the world. The GPS, developed by the United States Department of Defence, has been in use since the 1970s and has become an indispensable tool for everything from navigating cars and ships to guiding missiles and aircraft.

Background of GPS

The origins of GPS can be traced back to the Cold War era when the United States military began developing a new navigation system that could be used to guide intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to their targets. This system was called the transit system, and it used a network of satellites in low Earth orbit to determine the location of a receiver on the ground. However, the transit system was limited in its accuracy and coverage area, and could only provide location information once every hour.

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In the late 1960s, the United States Department of Defence began work on a new navigation system that would be more accurate and reliable than transit. This system was called the Navstar GPS (Global Positioning System), and it used a network of satellites in medium Earth orbit to provide location and timing information to receivers on the ground.

The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978, and the system became operational in the early 1990s. Since then, the GPS system has been widely used for navigation, mapping, and surveying, as well as in a wide range of other applications, including aviation, shipping, and agriculture.

Background of BeiDou

BeiDou, on the other hand, was developed by China’s space agency, the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The system is named after the Chinese term for the Big Dipper constellation, which is also known as the “Northern Dipper” or “Beidou” in Chinese.

The BeiDou project was first initiated in 1983 by the Chinese government, with the aim of developing an independent navigation system for both military and civilian use. The project faced many technical and financial challenges in its early years, and progress was slow. However, China gradually built up its expertise in satellite technology, and in 2000, it launched its first experimental satellite for the BeiDou system.

The BeiDou system was developed in three phases. The first phase, which involved launching three satellites, was completed in 2003. The second phase, which added another five satellites, was completed in 2012, allowing the system to provide regional coverage. The third phase, which involves launching more satellites and improving the system’s accuracy and reliability, is ongoing.

The BeiDou system became operational for civilian use in China in 2012, and for military use in 2014. It has since been expanded to provide global coverage, with the final satellite in the current constellation launched in 2020. The BeiDou system is designed to provide highly accurate positioning, navigation, and timing services to users around the world. It is seen as a strategic asset for China, providing the country with an independent navigation system that is not reliant on the US-operated GPS system.

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Advantages of BeiDou

One of the main advantages of BeiDou over GPS is its accuracy. Beidou is capable of providing positioning information with an accuracy of within one meter, compared to the GPS’s accuracy of within three meters. This level of accuracy is particularly useful for surveying, precision agriculture, and self-driving cars, where even small errors in positioning can have significant consequences.

Another advantage of Beidou is its reliability. Unlike the GPS, which relies on a single frequency for communication between the satellites and the user, BeiDou uses two frequencies, which makes it more resistant to interference from sources such as buildings or other electronic devices. This means that BeiDou is better suited for use in urban environments where GPS signals can be disrupted.

In addition, Beidou has a feature called the “short message service,” which allows users to send and receive text messages via the navigation system. This feature could be particularly useful in emergency situations where other forms of communication may not be available.

Coverage area is another area of achievement where Beidou outdid traditional navigation systems. GPS covers most parts of the world, but it has some limitations in areas with high-rise buildings, dense forests, and other obstructions. In contrast, BeiDou has a more extensive coverage area that includes remote areas, deserts, and oceans, making it a more reliable navigation system for users in those areas.

BeiDou also has a more robust signal and communication system, making it more resistant to interference and jamming. This feature is particularly crucial in military and defence applications, where GPS has been known to suffer from interference from adversarial countries.

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BeiDou’s Limitations

It’s important to note, however, that BeiDou is not without its limitations. While the system has global coverage, it currently has less complete coverage in some regions compared to the GPS. For example, the GPS has more satellites in orbit over the United States, which means that it can provide more accurate and reliable positioning information in that region.

Another limitation of BeiDou is that it currently has fewer users compared to the GPS. The GPS has been in use for decades and is integrated into a wide range of devices and applications, from smartphones to airplanes. BeiDou, on the other hand, is still in the process of gaining wider adoption, particularly outside of China. There are also concerns about the potential military applications of BeiDou.

Like the GPS, BeiDou has both civilian and military capabilities, and some experts have raised concerns that the system could be used to support China’s military operations, including missile guidance and navigation. However, the Chinese government has stated that BeiDou’s primary focus is on civilian applications and that it is committed to maintaining the system’s peaceful uses.

Overall, while BeiDou has some advantages over GPS, it’s not yet clear whether it has truly surpassed the American system. The GPS has been the global standard for satellite navigation for decades and is deeply ingrained in many aspects of modern life. BeiDou is still a relatively new system and has yet to achieve the same level of integration and adoption. However, if China continues to invest in the development and expansion of BeiDou,  it may become a viable alternative to GPS in the future.

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