After more than 20 years of effort, China completed its satellite navigation system last Tuesday when the last of BeiDou’s 35 satellites reached geostationary orbit.
China's domestically developed BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, designed to rival the U.S.-owned Global Positioning System (GPS), is now offering worldwide coverage, allowing global users to access its high-accuracy positioning, navigation and timing services, which are vital to the modern economy.
China’s state media claims the system, formally initiated in 1994, is now being used by more than half of the world's countries, and that its navigation products have been exported to more than 120 countries.
Like GPS, the services are offered free of charge using public protocols. But technical experts say the differences between the two systems have profound security implications.
All other global navigation satellite systems — GPS, GLONASS (Russia) and Galileo (EU) — mainly act as beacons, beaming out signals picked up by billions of devices using them to determine their precise position on Earth.
BeiDou is a two-way communication system, allowing it to identify the locations of receivers. BeiDou-compatible devices can transmit data back to the satellites, even in text messages of up to 1,200 Chinese characters.
"In layman's terms, you can not only know where you are through BeiDou but also tell others where you are through the system," China's state broadcaster CCTV said last month.
Such a capability has raised serious security concerns. "All cellular devices, as I understand their function, can be tracked because they continually communicate with towers or satellites," Dr. Larry Wortzel, a commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), told VOA.
"So just as here in the U.S., there are concerns that police or federal agencies can track people by their cellphones. That can happen. The same is true of a cellphone relying on BeiDou, Glonass and Galileo. The question is: Who are you concerned about being tracked by?"
Legislation passed in Taiwan in 2016 also noted that two-way communication capabilities could be used in cyberattacks. It recommended that government employees should avoid using smartphones that rely on BeiDou for their phone navigation system.
In a public report, Taiwan's Ministry of Science and Technology said that Taiwanese using mobile phones made in the mainland might be providing Beijing with information via embedded malware. "Because the Chinese BeiDou satellite positioning system has two-way information sending and receiving function and malicious programs could be hidden in the navigation chip of the mobile phone, operating system or apps, the use of BeiDou-enabled smartphones could face security risks," the report stated.
The ministry recommended that national defense agencies monitor signals transmitted by BeiDou and warn of any anomalies as soon as possible.
A study by the USCC in 2017 also found that the system could become a portal for more attacks: "BeiDou could pose a security risk by allowing China’s government to track users of the system by deploying malware transmitted through either its navigation signal or messaging function (via a satellite communication channel), once the technology is in widespread use." But the report also said industry professionals so far said they were not aware of ways to transmit malware through a navigation signal feasibly.
Depending on where the phone is made and what microchips are in the phone, "the malware might be embedded in the chips," Wortzel told VOA. "That is why the U.S. is concerned about Huawei devices and systems as well as Lenovo computers." Wortzel added that the comments represented his own opinion, not USCC's.
Rivaling US GPS
The U.S. has long been the world leader in satellite-based positioning with its Global Positioning System.
In 1996, during the Taiwan Strait Crisis, China fired three missiles to locations on the Taiwan Strait as a warning. While the first missile hit its intended target, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lost track of the other two. China claims that the U.S. had cut off the GPS signal to the Pacific that China relied upon for missile tracking. The event prompted Beijing to build its global navigation and positioning satellite system.
Almost 25 years later, BeiDou is now trying to rival GPS's dominant positions. It has overtaken its U.S. rival in size. At the end of June, there were 35 BeiDou satellites in operation, compared with 31 for GPS.
"It brings full autonomy to China in matters of position and navigation services for ground, sea and air transportation means on a global scale," said Dr. Emmanuel Meneut in a recent report published by a French think tank, the Institute of International Relations.
According to a report released last month by a Chinese research firm Qianxun SI, BeiDou's satellites were observed more frequently than GPS satellites in most parts of the world. The state media Xinhua reported last Friday that BeiDou now has 500 million subscribers for its high-precision positioning services.
As an integral part of everyday life, GPS is nearly ubiquitous in the modern economy. The system is also an indispensable asset to U.S. forces at home and deployed around the globe. It provides a substantial military advantage and has been integrated into virtually every facet of military operations. Being overtaken by BeiDou could have potentially enormous implications for both high-tech industry and national security.
To promote greater use of the technology, China has sought to incentivize other countries with loans and free services. Beijing signed a roughly 2 billion yuan ($297 million) agreement with Thailand in 2013, making the country the first overseas client of BeiDou. According to a report released last month by a Shanghai-based market research firm, SWS Research, by the end of 2020, at least 1,000 base stations will be built in the 10 ASEAN countries.
"Widespread integration of BeiDou across the Belt and Road [a global development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013] will ostensibly end a member nation’s reliance on the American military-run GPS network," Heath Sloane, a scholar at the Yenching Academy of Peking University, wrote in The Diplomat in April. "Torn between rival networks, the world may soon be bifurcated into GPS or BeiDou camps."
The American military says it uses Russian and European backup systems for GPS, but not BeiDou.
General James Holmes, the head of the U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command, told a conference in Washington in March that pilots of the elite U-2 spy plane wear watches that receive satellite navigation coordinates from alternate systems when GPS is jammed.
While China's 5G networking technology has long been considered a security threat, BeiDou receives little criticism from the U.S. Moreover, the system received much-needed help from Washington in 2017. As Beijing was rapidly developing the system, it faced a problem that only the U.S. could solve: No frequency bands were available.
Under the “first come, first served” principle, GPS had occupied most of the spectrum that a global positioning system needs, since the U.S. was the first nation to start broadcasting in those frequencies.
China had to obtain permission from Washington before using this limited resource. After three years of negotiations, the two countries agreed in December 2017 to allow BeiDou's civil signals to be interoperable with GPS. As a result, the three frequency bands that BeiDou satellites use to transmit navigation signals are located adjacent to or even inside GPS frequency bands.
'Biggest' aerospace project
Officially started in 1994, BeiDou is consistently referenced as "the biggest" aerospace program that China ever undertaken. For the past 2½ years alone, there have been more than 300,000 scientists and engineers from more than 400 research institutions and corporations involved in the program. Along with 5G, BeiDou is called by Beijing "The Two Pillars of a Great Power.”
Yang Changfeng, a chief designer of BeiDou, told China’s state broadcaster CCTV last month that China was now “moving from being a major nation in space to becoming a true space power.”
"The rise of the Chinese GPS BeiDou system is not simply one more positioning service in competition with the U.S. One is a strategic challenge," Meneut said.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story quoted General Holmes saying American U-2 pilots can access China’s BeiDou system as a GPS backup. The Air Force later contacted VOA to say the general misspoke, and the system does not operate with BeiDou.