BeiDou And Strategic Advancements in PRC Space Navigation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 5

Satellites in orbit around Earth. (Source: AI-generated image)

Executive Summary:

  • BeiDou enhances both the PRC’s strategic autonomy and its influence across the world. It has signed agreements with numerous countries to expand its use, including for military applications.
  • An interoperability agreement with the US government diminishes the strategic value of GPS by eliminating and altering the costs of switching over to BeiDou.
  • BeiDou could successfully insulate the PRC and partner countries in the event of a conflict scenario with the United States, while being instrumental in supporting the country’s counterspace capabilities.
  • The PRC’s BeiDou satellite navigation system is now perceived as superior to GPS. Xi Jinping has described the third generation of satellites as “one of the important achievements China has made in the past 40 years.”


For nearly half a century, the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) has been the undisputed gold standard for global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). Now, it has a challenger: BeiDou (北斗).

On February 23, 2024, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) successfully placed an experimental telecommunications satellite into orbit using its Long March 5 (长征五号) launch vehicle. This was PRC’s fifth launch of the current calendar year, which demonstrates its commitment to pushing the frontier of satellite technology (CALT, accessed February 26). The PRC’s activity in this domain follows several successes last year. In November 2023, the International Civil Aviation Authority recognized that BeiDou had met the criteria to be accepted as a navigation system for global civil aviation (State Council, November 16, 2023). In December, the PRC successfully launched two new satellites to augment its Beidou-3 (北斗三) constellation. This third generation of the PRC’s domestically developed GNSS now comprises 58 satellites, compared to GPS’ 31 (CALT, accessed February 26; USCG, February 14). The PRC also seeks to expand its presence in low-Earth orbit, where it is possible to launch satellites more cheaply and plentifully. The state-owned China Satellite Network Group (中国卫星网络集团) aims to challenge the dominance of the US company StarLink by establishing a megaconstellation comprising approximately 13,000 satellites. 10 percent will be launched between mid-2024 through 2029 (Sina, January 12).

In the 30 years since its inception in 1994, BeiDou has grown in sophistication and scope to make the PRC a central player in the GNSS arena. In 2023, a US government advisory board on GPS found that, “GPS’ capabilities are now substantially inferior to those of China’s BeiDou” (GPS, January 27, 2023). In today’s era of heightened geopolitical competition, BeiDou is a highly strategic asset for the PRC. Since at least 2014, BeiDou has been integrated into the PRC’s military communications and precision-guided munitions systems (China Brief, August 22, 2014). This has eliminated the PRC’s reliance on the United States’ GPS and thereby enhanced its strategic autonomy. An equally pressing concern for the United States is BeiDou’s role as a vehicle through which the PRC has extended its reach in global politics, economics, and military affairs. The capital cities of 165 out of 195 countries—or 85 percent—are now observed more frequently by BeiDou satellites than by those operated by GPS (Nikkei Asia, November 25, 2020). Increasingly, the PRC shares BeiDou technology with its partners expressly for military purposes, which may strengthen its military ties with traditional US partners like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as US adversaries such as Russia and Iran. States face negligible opportunity costs when switching over from GPS to BeiDou. An agreement signed between the US Department of State and the PRC’s Satellite Navigation Office in 2017 included provisions for the interoperability of the GPS L1C and BeiDou B1C civil signals. As a result, states are able to seamlessly switch GNSS systems without substantive changing the hardware used to receive signals (GPS, December 4, 2017). Together, these developments may prompt a transition away from the global reliance on GPS, diminishing a crucial instrument of US influence in civil and military domains.

 Some Things Never Change: BeiDou’s Foundation Amidst Global Power Dynamics

The PRC developed BeiDou with a watchful eye on the United States. Chen Fangyun (陈芳允), the founder of radio electronics in the PRC, originally conceived of building a Chinese satellite navigation system in the 1980s. But the impetus to actualize this idea came after the United States first tested GPS in combat during Operation Desert Storm. The United States’ military dominance during the first Gulf War stunned Chinese officials and galvanized the PRC ’s comprehensive military modernization in all areas, including space. [1] A further catalyst was the “Yinhe incident” in 1993. The US government had been given intelligence that the Chinese container ship Yinhe (银河) was transporting chemical weapons materials to Iran and instructed nearby Middle Eastern countries to prevent it from docking. In the ensuing stand-off, during which Yinhe was stranded in the Indian Ocean for 24 days, the PRC alleged that the United States had deliberately jammed the ship’s GPS navigation system and prevented its ability to navigate (The Paper, June 6, 2020). Work on an independent Chinese satellite navigation system began immediately afterwards, in 1994 (State Council, November 4, 2022). The PRC felt vindicated by this decision during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1995-96, when it claimed that GPS interference had made it lose control over one of its ballistic missiles fired over the Taiwan Strait (SCMP, November 13, 2009).

Going Global: BeiDou as a Tool for Soft Power

The program progressed quickly. In December 2000, the PRC launched its first satellite, BeiDou-1A, which provided domestic positioning services. By 2012, the second generation of BeiDou satellites extended services beyond the PRC to the Asia-Pacific. Soon after, the PRC signed myriad bilateral agreements with countries to expand BeiDou’s reach. The first was with Thailand in 2013, for use in its public sector, disaster relief, power distribution, and transport. At the time, an expert on BeiDou based at Wuhan University stated that, “If Thailand can embrace Beidou, other countries may follow and the Americans’ political, economic and military power in the region will be reduced” (SCMP, April 4, 2013). The strategic orientation of the BeiDou program was, therefore, clear from the start.

Agreements with Laos, Brunei, Cambodia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka soon followed Thailand’s (China Daily, May 18, 2013). In 2015, Beijing and Tehran signed an MOU, which involved building BeiDou ground stations in Iran and establishing an Iranian center for space data collection (Mehr News, October 18, 2015). In 2016, Saudi Arabia’s King King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology signed an MOU with the PRC’s Satellite Navigation Office, which included clauses on cooperation on satellite manufacturing, the usage of the BeiDou Satellite Navigation System, and the “establishment of a permanent space station” in Saudi Arabia (Carnegie, August 1, 2023).

In 2020, BeiDou further expanded its reach with the full launch of its third generation, which provides coverage around the world (State Council, November 4, 2022). President Xi Jinping described the system as “one of the important achievements China has made in the past 40 years of reform and opening up (中国实施改革开放40年来取得的重要成就之一)” (Sina, July 31, 2020).”

With the exception of a bilateral cooperation agreement signed with Argentina in 2020 (Global Times, February 6, 2022), much of the recent expansion of BeiDou’s civilian network has occurred through multilateral fora. The China-Central Asia BDS Cooperation Forum was first convened in Nanning in 2019 (BeiDou, October 19, 2019). The China-Arab States BDS Cooperation Forum was held in Shanghai in 2018, in Tunis in 2019, and in Beijing in 2021 (BeiDou, December 8, 2021). These are not just talk shops. In 2018, BeiDou’s first overseas center, the China-Arab BeiDou Center, was built in the Jazala Science Park on the outskirts of Tunis (Space in Africa, April 16, 2018). In 2021, delegates to the third China-Arab States BDS Cooperation Forum signed a two year action-plan (中国-阿拉伯国家卫星导航领域合作行动计划), in which they pledged closer cooperation and academic exchange in the field of satellite navigation (Arab Civil Aviation Organization, December 9, 2021). In light of these multilateral meetings, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, and the UAE have all adopted BeiDou for land surveying and mapping, transportation, precision agriculture, environmental monitoring, and security (Global Times, December 9, 2021). In another sign of BeiDou’s global expansion, the China-Africa BDS Cooperation Forum was held in Beijing in 2021 (BeiDou, November 5, 2021).

Worldwide, the PRC has some 120 ground monitoring stations—the facilities used to establish and maintain connection with orbiting satellites—while the United States has just 11 (SCMP, November 10, 2022). The locations of these ground stations are geopolitically charged. BeiDou purportedly uses facilities in Australia, Canada, Japan, and Sweden, key US allies (SCMP, November 10, 2022; ESA, accessed February 21). In September 2023, the PRC installed ground stations in two locations on the Paracels, a disputed island reef in the South China Sea (SCMP, September 20, 2023).

BeiDou is a pivotal component of the PRC’s endeavors to cultivate ties around the world and thereby gain geopolitical advantages. The door is wide open for it to do so. In their comprehensive report on the impact of BeiDou on great power competition, Sarah Sewall, Tyler Vandenberg, and Kaj Malden argue that the United States’ GNSS strategy is too narrow: the Department of Defense is primarily concerned with preventing the disruption of GPS during military operations and protecting national critical infrastructure. By contrast, the PRC “recognizes that BeiDou’s commercial applications can enhance the CCP’s political, economic, and security goals.” [2] Key factors behind BeiDou’s expansion, then, are the PRC’s highly strategic diplomatic outreach, which is well received by states because of BeiDou’s wider global coverage, due to its larger satellite constellation.

That GPS and BeiDou are radio frequency compatible is another, oft-overlooked factor. This is an outcome of the agreement struck between the US Department of State and the PRC’s Satellite Navigation Office in 2017 (GPS, December 4, 2017). In essence, this compatibility allows states to switch from GPS to BeiDou without the need to significantly change their hardware for receiving signals. As was the intention of the agreement, this improves the overall quality and coverage of GNSS internationally. However, precisely because this interoperability facilitates a seamless and cost-free transition from GPS to BeiDou provides the PRC the opportunity to draw states into its network and therefore away from the United States, of which it has taken full advantage. The reverse could also be true, but in the absence of a similarly calculated effort by the United States to elevate and expand the reach of GPS, its strategic value has markedly diminished with the rise of BeiDou.

A Not So Peaceful Rise: BeiDou as a Tool for Hard Power

It is impossible to divorce the BeiDou satellite navigation system from the PRC’s broader military apparatus. This is the case despite much of the export of BeiDou internationally serving civilian ends. Space capabilities feature significantly in the People’s Liberation Army’s strategy of coercive diplomacy. [3] BeiDou’s “informationization programs” are primarily run by the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, the Central Military Commission (CMC) Equipment Development Department (EDD), and the CMC Joint Staff Department (SCIO, December 15, 2016). A report published by CCID Think Tank (赛迪智库), which operates directly under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (CCID), on “Prospects for the Development of China’s Military-Civil Fusion in 2019 (2019 年中国军民融合发展形势展望) highlights breakthroughs with BeiDou as an exemplar of the PRC’s model of military-civil fusion (民参军). [4] In 2020, Zheng Anqi (郑安琪) of the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology stated that, “if modern military forces have strong information power, they have strong military power” (Brookings, April 5, 2021). In the same year, researchers at the Academy of Military Sciences asserted that, the PRC “will give full play to the capabilities of future communications technologies—including large connections, low latency, high bandwidth, and wide coverage—to provide more powerful scientific and technology support for our military’s intelligent combat system” (Brookings, April 5, 2021).

The obvious military application for BeiDou is as insulation for the PRC in a conflict scenario with the United States. With its military and public no longer dependent on another nation’s satellite navigation system, the PRC’s military and civilian life can continue to function even if GPS is degraded. The PRC has a growing arsenal of counterspace weapons that threaten US satellites (DOD, April 26, 2023). Significantly, the reach of BeiDou is such that other states will also be relatively insulated. As BeiDou is adopted more comprehensively around the world, the PRC may become capable of targeting GPS—wreaking havoc on the United States and its allies—with relative impunity. The PRC’s decision to launch thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit through the China Satellite Network Group, in conjunction with the BeiDou program, further complicates matters as it will be effectively impossible for the US military to successfully jam them all.

Beijing’s defense-related foreign policy—of which BeiDou already forms a part—is an equally pressing matter. Just as the PRC has pivoted to using multilateral engagement to extend the reach of BeiDou for civilian purposes, it has intensified its bilateral outreach to expand the use of BeiDou for military purposes. In 2018, Pakistan was the first state to receive full access to BeiDou’s military-grade Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) data, which enhances the precision of missiles, ships, and aircraft (Times of Islamabad, January 2, 2019; Times of Islamabad, April 5, 2019). It is likely, though not confirmed officially, that the Pakistani military now exclusively uses BeiDou (Global Village Space, March 21, 2022). In 2019, the Saudi Ministry of Defense and the PRC CMC’s EDD signed an MOU on cooperating on the military use of BeiDou. [5] Although the defense relationship between Pakistan and the PRC has been close for some time and this is, therefore, a somewhat unsurprising development, it is still a cause for concern for the United States (Rand, October 16, 2015). Given Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s historically close defense ties to the United States, the progression of their relations with the PRC in the space domain suggest growing military engagement may have implications for US power projection in regions in which it was once dominant.

BeiDou also presents the prospect for closer military interoperability amongst US adversaries. In 2015, the Iranian defense electronics company Salran signed an agreement with Chinese defense companies to begin using BeiDou PNT technology on Iranian missiles and UAVs to improve their targeting capabilities. [6] In 2021, Iran was granted full access to the PRC’s BeiDou satellite system for military purposes. [7] In 2022, during President Vladimir Putin’s now infamous trip to Beijing during the Winter Olympics, the PRC and Russia signed an agreement on the interoperability of BeiDou and its Russian counterpart, GLONASS (BeiDou, February 5, 2022). The two sides doubled down on this commitment later that year, when they held the ninth meeting of the China-Russia Satellite Navigation Major Strategic Cooperation Project Committee and signed further agreements focused on the mutual construction, operation, and maintenance of BeiDou and GLONASS’ respective ground stations in the two countries. They also made a statement pledging to jointly provide BeiDou and GLONASS user information support services (BeiDou, September 27, 2022). Although further details have not been disclosed, this activity follows and further develops an agreement, signed in 2018, to integrate the two satellite navigation systems (SCMP, February 5, 2022).


GPS has been described as a “silent utility,” and this is no less true in the case of BeiDou (GPS, May 4, 2023). In the 30 years since the PRC began building its indigenous satellite navigation system, the country has successfully developed a high-quality, global network of satellites and base stations. By rivalling GPS, the PRC can increase its global economic and political reach and augment its own military communication capabilities. Moreover, there is a noticeable trend of the PRC sharing access to BeiDou’s PNT capabilities for military purposes. This strategically brings traditional US partners into Beijing’s sphere of influence and fosters greater interoperability amongst the militaries of US adversaries. As the PRC, Russia, and Iran prepare for their fourth set of multilateral naval drills in almost as many years, it is crucial to monitor their engagement in space with the same level of scrutiny as that applied to their activities on the ground (SCMP, February 6, 2024). 


[1] Michael Dahm, “China’s Desert Storm Education,” Proceedings 147/3/1, 417 (USNI, 2021)

[2] Sarah Sewall, Tyler Vandenberg, and Kaj Malden, “China’s BeiDou: New Dimensions of Great Power Competition” (Belfer Center 2023)

[3] Kevin Pollpeter, “Coercive Space Activities: The View From PRC Sources,” (China Aerospace Studies Institute, Air University, 2024)

[4] “Prospects for the Development of China’s Military-Civil Fusion in 2019 (2019 年中国军民融合发展形势展望)” (CCID 2019)

[5] David H. Millner, Stephen Maksim, and Marissa Huhmann, “BeiDou: China’s GPS Challenger Takes Its Place on the World Stage,” Joint Force Quarterly 105 (National Defense University 2022).

[6] Jason Warner, Lucas Winter, and Jemima Baar, “Instruments of Chinese Military Influence in Iran,” (US Army FMSO TRADOC G2, 2023)

[7] Vahid Ghorbani, Mostafa Pakdel, Mehrdad Alipour, “An Analysis of China’s Military Diplomacy towards Iran,” Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs 12, 1 (2021)