As we speak, Trump has been busy signing executive orders on banning whatever that probably came up in his dream the night before. His latest attacks are Chinese companies Tiktok (could be American company soon) and Tencent’s Wechat, claiming that the apps compromise U.S. national security by secretly using users’ personal information. It is precisely this kind of angry and seemingly random punches that Trump threw at China that distracts many’s attention to the real implications of this ever-escalating US-China war. How much really are at stakes? It goes beyond basic data privacy issues. It is not a move to simply bully Chinese internet companies with a bunch of users. The real battleground is indeed the technology and communication backbone that will dictate the new world order in 2040.
Navigation Satellite Independence
On July 31, 2020 China officially celebrated the completion of its Beidou Navigation Satellite System that started in 2009. Over the course of 3 phases and 11 years, a total of 55 satellites have been successfully launched into space to create China’s own complete BeiDou Navigation System (BDS). While the BDS is the number 4 global satellite system by date, after U.S. Space Force-maintained GPS, Russia’s Glonass and EU’s Galileo, it has been designed with much superior capabilities.
According to the official Baidu Wikipedia profile, the BDS is comprised of three parts: space segment, ground segment and user segment. It can provide various users with high-precision, high-reliability positioning, navigation, and timing services around the world, all weather and all day, and it also has short message communication capabilities for remote areas not covered by telecom base stations. The positioning accuracy of BDS is expected to be of the decimeter and centimeter level (VS current GPS positioning accuracy of 10 meters and hence 100X improvement), velocity measurement accuracy of 0.2 m/s, and timing accuracy of 10 nanoseconds.
Who can access BDS?
While BDS, the same as other navigation systems, is primarily designed for aircrafts, submarines, missiles, as well as commercial services, China is offering BDS services basically as an open system, free of charge, to the world. Technically most Android phones in the world today with a relative new chip can support BDS already (All Apple phones have been built to support only US-GPS standards so that would be an entirely different consideration). So we can expect that the migration from GPS to DBS to be relatively straightforward, driven primarily by market demand for what it offers.
Conceptually, BeiDou is located within China’s “Information Silk Road,” a subset of its land and maritime silk routes under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is now able to extend influence in a multidomain environment (land, sea and space) via its BeiDou space system. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology sells the Information Silk Road, to include BeiDou and 5G networks, to global audiences as a completely self-sufficient technology infrastructure that anticipates life in the 21st century. This Chinese information infrastructure consists of undersea cables, where China is dominant, space-supported links, and other Earth-based links.
The launch of the last BDS satellite comes at a time when the world is heavily dependent on space infrastructure due to the impact of COVID-19 limitations on in-person physical meetings and travel restrictions, leading to increased demand for broadband internet for communication and for satellite-based internet. China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), anticipating the importance of space in our lives, determined in April 2020 that services like space information, and associated incorporated services like 5G, satellite broadband, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) are part of its “New Infrastructures” list. These “New Infrastructures” are now targeted for government investment and policy direction.
Path to a Separate BDS System
In 1996, during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, China fired three missiles to locations on the Taiwan Strait as a warning signal against Taiwan’s moves for independence and full internationally recognized statehood. While the first missile hit about 18.5 kilometers from Taiwan’s Keelung military base as a warning, China lost track of the other two missiles. China asserts that the United States had cut off the GPS signal to the Pacific, on which China was dependent at that time for missile tracking. Consequently, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) woke up to the strategic vulnerability of having such critical military space infrastructure in the hands of a foreign power. A PLA colonel remembered that incident: “It was a great shame for the PLA … an unforgettable humiliation. That’s how we made up our mind to develop our own global [satellite] navigation and positioning system, no matter how huge the cost…BeiDou is a must for us. We learned it the hard way.”
In 1996, China decided to build its own navigation system, to be completed within 25 years, to establish truly independent military command and control, and precision missile guidance and tracking. The end result of that decision is the establishment of the independent GNSS and PNT systems, the PLA Strategic Support Force, and the development of China’s missile capabilities, to include cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles under the PLA Rocket Force.
Economic and Military Implications of BDS
There are several economic implications of the completion of an independent BeiDou navigation system. First, China promises that the BDS will build a world of intelligent manufacturing and innovation based on a self-sustaining system not dependent on the West. Most importantly, from a geopolitical perspective, BeiDou offers an alternative to GPS, enabling China to further consolidate its hold on global infrastructure and rulemaking to challenge the centrality of the United States to form partnerships and alliances and to control the standards for information technology, mobile devices, 5G, self-driving cars and drones, and the broader internet of things. Second, the BDS promises to be “100 times more accurate” as a navigation system to those who sign up for it, a major advantage for those companies dependent on GPS for competitive profit advantage. Third, it aims to provide an overall better internet and technology experience, especially for countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The consequence of such information-based economic dependency on China is that countries will be careful not to anger the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over political issues, to include Tibet, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, as that could result in China cutting off critical technology with deep impact on their societies’ critical infrastructure. In other words, global use of BDS increases China’s leverage for compellence and coercion.
There are also clear security implications, as BeiDou is a force multiplier in the military context for China.
First, for fixed military targets, China can now independently guide missiles and bombs onto targets without fear that the United States would turn off navigation services. Second, for mobile targets, once geolocated through satellites or other means, China can guide its missiles very close to the target, after which a terminal seeker can provide active guidance for precise targeting. This scenario could apply to China’s ballistic missiles, for example the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Ltd-built DF-21D, that can target U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Third, BeiDou enables independent military command and control by allowing precise knowledge of the location of one’s own forces, and the ability to precisely target and provide navigation for military forces and strikes. This capability strengthens China’s ability to coerce or compel others within its sphere of interest, such as on issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan or Hong Kong. It also limits U.S. counterintervention options, and raises the credibility of China’s ability to impose costs should the United States or its allies seek to intervene. Fourth, an independent BDS coupled with 5G means real-time military command and control and devastatingly accurate automated weapons systems.
With the successful launch of the BeiDou satellite constellation, China has proven that it is serious in its movement toward a world order where countries converge on its vision of an interconnected world, with China as the key player. This is backed by the long-term strategic insight that whichever country dominates such space infrastructure will dominate future geopolitics. The combination of these technological developments offers a China-led world order a definitive competitive edge.
Undersea Fibre-optic Cables
Since September 2016, China Telecom has replaced satellite stations on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands with 4G fibre-optic cable stations. Fibre-optic cables are much faster and much more stable than satellite systems. Installation began just two months after an arbitral tribunal in the Hague unanimously found against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The stations significantly strengthen China’s command and control capabilities in the South China Sea. Over the longer term, China’s cable strategy holds serious security implications for the U.S., Taiwan and the Asia–Pacific community.
The Chinese military, along with the Ministry of Information Industry, has concentrated on developing its submarine cable technology since the 1990s. In 2002, the PLA used a self-developed undersea cable-laying system for the first time. It deployed its first optical cable-laying ship in 2015. And last year, the PLA Naval University of Engineering, Hengton Optic-Electric, Zhongtian Technology Submarine Cables and Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications co-established the Joint Lab of Underwater Optical Networks, a science and engineering research facility.
Although undersea cables are the most critical infrastructure supporting today’s global data and voice communications, they’re surprisingly vulnerable. In general, cables have only a thin rubber sheath. Shipping and fishing activities are the most common sources of damage. China has taken steps to protect its submarine cables and conducts regular patrols. It has also imposed special submarine cable protection measures during major international events, such as the Expo Shanghai in 2010 and the Belt and Road Summit in May 2017, to prevent propaganda channels, live streams and international calls from being disrupted.
China’s cable industry has rapidly transformed itself. It used to rely heavily on imports, but today it competes strongly in international markets. In 2011, for example, Huawei Marine Networks constructed a 1,200 kilometre ultralong non-repeater cable system that connects five islands of Indonesia’s eastern archipelago. Between 2012 and 2015, Chinese companies’ market share of global cable projects was only 7%; that figure is projected to increase to 20% by 2019. Chinese companies currently lag behind only France’s Alcatel-Lucent and Switzerland’s TE Connectivity in the sector.
China sees cable networks as an essential element of its One Belt, One Road initiative. Undersea cables will ensure that Beijing is well placed to influence media and psychological operations as part of its ‘three warfares’ strategy. In the military arena, such a cable network creates a strategic advantage in anti-submarine warfare for the Chinese navy. It will form an irreplaceable part of China’s underwater observation system in the South China Sea. This ‘underwater great wall’ includes a number of subsurface sensors connected through optical cables to a central processing and monitoring facility in Shanghai. The system will function much like America’s SOSUS network, which employs fixed sensor arrays to detect Soviet submarines. A Chinese system could erode American undersea warfare advantages in the South China Sea.
Undersea cables have been described as Taiwan’s Achilles’ heel. In the event of a conflict across the Taiwan Strait, the cables will be prime Chinese targets: cutting them will cripple Taiwan’s international communications. And the damage wouldn’t be confined to Taiwan. There are at least 10 international submarine cables between Taiwan and Asia–Pacific countries. Damaging Taiwan’s cables would disrupt international business and financial markets, leading to severe economic effects on regional countries, including Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia.
Articles 113 to 115 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea address the rights and obligations of states to adopt laws and regulations to protect submarine cables on the high seas. Australia has established the world’s most advanced cable protection regime. It passed the Cable Protection Bill in 2005 and was the first state to join the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC). It’s also one of the few countries working with regional states amid security concerns about Chinese cable companies. Those actions demonstrate that Canberra could play a leading role in promoting regional cable protection. It could, for example, encourage Asia–Pacific countries to cooperate fully with the ICPC to focus international attention on cable security and to make China’s undersea monitoring in the South China Sea harder.
The U.S. and its Asia–Pacific partners should also monitor the security of cable routes, using the automatic identification system to pinpoint the location of faults. And they should establish multilateral cooperation mechanisms to avoid delays to cable repairs. Such efforts would go some way to countering yet another area in which China is quietly developing a capability that could disrupt the region, and prevent Taiwan from being the weakest point in the Asia–Pacific submarine cable network.
Having launched an “Information Silk Road” and an exclusive satellite navigation system, BeiDou, China has virtually upgraded the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network into a multi-dimensional super-project with a land, sea and space presence. Assimilating vast regions under a virtual umbrella to create an extensive zone of influence, the BRI will have its own Internet deep-sea cables connecting it globally, while BeiDou satellites help navigate all the machinery from aircraft to submarines.
Projected to connect all the countries participating in the BRI with technological links in addition to trade investments and infrastructure projects, a completely self-sufficient economic and security system has been conceived. According to research conducted by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, this information and space corridor comprising a vast network of undersea cables, satellite networks and terrestrial links could make China “one of the world’s most important international submarine-cable communication centers within a decade or two.”
However, with this access to deep-sea cable networks, China could monitor or divert data traffic, and even cut off links with entire countries if it wished. Relaying 98% of global telecommunications data and situated in international waters, these cables are vulnerable to cyber-intrusion, particularly in underdeveloped countries, where such tampering cannot be monitored. Fearing such a breach, British national security adviser Mark Sedwill warned the UK Parliament in 2017 that attacks on undersea cables could have “the same effect as used to be achieved in, say, World War II by bombing the London docks or taking out a power station.”
Considering the global impact of managing satellites and deep-sea Internet cables, these new BRI features could further complicate relations between the US and China. Though it is essential and useful digital technology, the US might consider it a long-term surveillance strategy and try to prevent Beijing from getting more control over the global telecom infrastructure. Having similar reservations, other global powers would also wish to enhance the security of sensitive internet data from all over the world.
Globally, Chinese companies are handling nearly 90 undersea cable projects either as owners or suppliers already. However, Internet users usually have no say over which cable systems transmit their data across the continents and just 380 active submarine cables handle global Internet traffic via 1,000 landing stations.
Once BRI countries are totally dependent on Beijing for their Internet freedom and defense operations, they will have to manage their issues with China only, as it will run and maintain their undersea Internet cables and satellite navigation. This is positive, as having an exclusive space and digital system as part of the Belt and Road Initiative may prevent Internet disruption in participating countries.
Initially, though, Beijing had started out with these plans as it wanted to benefit from the global digital economy and arrest China’s slowing economic growth. Implementing an “Internet-Plus” strategy, Beijing developed cross-border e-commerce to increase trade volume, build a China-ASEAN Information Harbor and generally encourage digital economic cooperation. After some years, the Internet dimension of the BRI was formally introduced in 2017 to connect China digitally with the Arab world and onward to Africa by laying fiber-optic cables across Pakistan.
Crossing the sea from Gwadar Port in Pakistan, the digital corridor links China’s Xinjiang with Khunjerab on the Pakistani-Chinese border by land, providing a safe route for voice traffic between the two countries. Once it is completed in 2020, 6,299 kilometers of underwater cables will extend to Djibouti from Gwadar and form the Digital Silk Route between Asia and Africa.
In tandem, a space-based Silk Road provides satellite navigation support to all BRI countries. Introduced in the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi, the first Beidou base station of the Space Silk Road became operational in 2017. Spreading across Southeast Asia, BeiDou is progressing rapidly now and 30 BRI countries are linked up. Striving for better accuracy, Beidou aims to replace the American GPS satellite network that has dominated the field for decades.
Outstripping GPS, which runs on 31 satellites, the total number of satellites launched by China under BeiDou reached 40 last year. Apparently, eight more satellites operated by the Chinese BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) have become functional, according to a report presented at the second China-Arab States BDS Cooperation Forum in Tunis last week. Providing high-quality navigational service to the Arab world, the positioning accuracy of these satellites is categorized as better than 10 meters. Over the next year, there are plans to launch at least 10 more satellites to provide BDS global services.
In recent years, the highest number of AI-related academic papers and more than one-fifth of AI patents are from China as research continues at a rapid pace. At Chinapotion, we have observed that China is aggressively passing, on even weekly basis, major national policies and investments in the areas of AI, 5G, IoT and e-Commerce. We have a very fortunate position to be based in Hong Kong now, being able to access the latest data and trends in both the English and Chinese World. Please let us know if you want further details in our research and reports.
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