China recently opened its domestic satellite navigation network to commercial use across the Asia-Pacific region.

The move underscored China’s emergence as an independent space power challenging the primacy of the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan.

The network offers a still-to-be-proven alternative in the region to the well-established and highly accurate U.S. global positioning system (GPS), and similar satellite-based constellations being developed by Russia and Europe. Until now, use of the Beidou network has been restricted to the Chinese armed forces and government. It has 16 navigation satellites in operation and number is due to reach 35 by 2020 to become a global GPS service.

China only launched the first spacecraft in the network in 2000. It did so to ensure that it would not have to rely on a foreign system that is critical for coordinated military operations and precise targeting, as well as for civilian uses. Beijing was concerned it could be denied access to foreign GPS in a conflict.

Beidou’s expansion also reflects a surge in the launching of other Chinese satellites that are of even greater military significance. They are used for space-based intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications. The satellites carry a variety of advanced sensors including synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to see through clouds, and electronic signals collection to monitor radar and radio transmissions on land and at sea.

Reliable satellite communications are vital as Chinese forces operate further offshore to enforce island and maritime resource claims disputed with Japan in the East China Sea and a number of Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea.

To keep U.S. or other outside forces from intervening in a crisis, China is reported to have developed anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) that have a range of several thousand kilometers, are very difficult to defend against, and can be directed against aircraft carriers and the large warships that guard them.

SAR sensors use a microwave transmission to create an image of sea and ground targets. They work night or day, in all-weather conditions. So they are well suited to detect ships over a wide area and observe their wakes, from which information on speed and direction can be derived.

Chinese electronic reconnaissance satellites are designed to accurately track and target U.S. carrier strike groups in near real time from low earth orbit as part of China’s evolving long-range precision strike capability, including ASBMs and hundreds of cruise missiles. Major surface vessels, such as aircraft carriers, have prominent electromagnetic, acoustic and infrared heat signatures, as well as radar reflections.

The latest annual report from the U.S. Department of Defense to Congress on Chinese military developments said that China was improving its coverage of the western Pacific with over-the-horizon radars, early-warning planes and unmanned aircraft. It added that the radars “can be used in conjunction with reconnaissance satellites to locate targets at great distances from China, thereby supporting long-range precision strikes, including employment of ASBMs.”

Matthew Durnin, a Beijing-based researcher with the World Security Institute’s China Program, said that he and a colleague had identified more than 30 Chinese satellites that could be used for reconnaissance and had been launched since 1999. As many as 17 appeared to be still active in mid-2012 and more have been put into orbit since then, including three in November. By comparison, Durnin estimated that the U.S. military had between 12 and 15 reconnaissance satellites in operation.

A report prepared last year for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in Washington concluded that while the overall level of China’s space technology might not match that of the U.S. and other space faring nations, its relative advances were significant.

“Trends indicate that China’s basic satellite coverage of waters and land within the Asia-Pacific region could, over time, approach that of the United States,” the report said. “The range of China’s precision strike assets is expanding out to Guam (a U.S. island territory and key military base in the western Pacific), Australia, Southeast Asia and India.”

Durnin said that the U.S. and China had very different demands for space-based reconnaissance. “The U.S. system prizes high-resolution and cutting edge technology,” he explained. “The Chinese system, while certainly improving technologically, seems to be more about putting a lot of “good enough” satellites into space for a relatively cheap price tag.”

Durnin noted that although China had incorporated in its space craft the three main sensor technologies (electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar and electronic intelligence) carried by U.S. spy satellites, they trailed U.S. models in performance and longevity.

However, for a large and electronically noisy target such as an aircraft carrier, China’s average daily satellite surveillance time did not lag the U.S. by much. “This is a remarkable feat considering China had no such satellites just a little over a decade ago,” Durnin added.

With many billions of dollars invested in satellite communications and sensors, the U.S. and China have a vested interest in maintaining a peaceful orbital environment. But if serious conflict erupted between them in the terrestrial world, space could quickly become a new frontier for battle.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.