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China tech

China's alternative to GPS starts global service ahead of schedule

Beijing pushes ahead on 'Made in China 2025' with crucial technology

A model of the BeiDou Satellite Navigation System is on display at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province in November.   © Kyodo

BEIJING -- China touted the completion of its homegrown global positioning system and the beginning of worldwide service on Thursday, ushering in a crucial technology for Beijing's "Made in China 2025" strategy to promote cutting-edge fields like automated driving and online services.

The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, or BDS, originally was slated to begin worldwide service in 2020 but the launch was pushed forward. The system lays the foundation for China to join the U.S. and Russia as a major space power.

"This signifies that BDS has officially entered the global era as [it] expands from a regional system to a global navigation system," Ran Chengqi, director general of the China Satellite Navigation Office, said Thursday.

"From now on, no matter where you go, BDS will always be with you," he said.

With Thursday's launch, BDS becomes one of only four global navigation satellite systems, alongside America's GPS, Russia's Glonass and Europe's Galileo.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an American congressional panel, wrote in a report that the foremost importance of BDS is that it lets China's military employ BeiDou-guided strike weapons even if access to GPS is denied.

"China is almost certainly equipping its ballistic and cruise missiles to operate with both GPS and Beidou," the report noted. If true, the Chinese military "could switch to Beidou to guide a missile to its target if GPS were denied, and China would also be able to attack an adversary’s access to GPS without disrupting its own capabilities," it said.

BDS began development in 1994 as an air defense system. The first satellite in the program was launched in 2000, and the technology was opened to the private sector in late 2011. Positioning service in China and Asia-Pacific islands began the next year.

In addition to national defense, applications for the navigation system are being developed for the domestic economy and private sector. Space development is key to the Made in China 2025 strategy, as Beijing aims for BDS to become a base for the world's high-tech industry.

BDS represents an independently developed Chinese technology, Ran said. China already has shipped 70 million items of related products like BDS chips, mainly for ships and public transportation agencies, to 90 countries and regions. China also leads the world for satellite navigation patent applications at 54,000.

Products from Chinese smartphone makers like Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo, as well as local automakers like Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group, will be compatible with BDS. But the technology faces hurdles to adoption, such as a lack of proven credibility gained through operational experience. Most Chinese services are thought to use American GPS systems as well. The government also will be tasked with improving this environment for BDS.

BDS offers accuracy within 5 meters for the Asia-Pacific region and 10 meters around the world -- better for sending short messages and position information than U.S. or Russian services. Twelve more satellites will be launched in the future to improve precision.

U.S. President Donald Trump is wary of China's efforts to develop its high-tech industry. The White House has banned government purchases of devices from Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei and indicted two Chinese nationals on accusations of stealing advanced technology from its government agencies.

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