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China ahead of India in the navigation race

China ahead of India in the navigation race

The gap between China’s BeiDou and India’s NavIC is quite apparent. BeiDou’s reach and precision places it as a global system, while NavIC is domestic with minimal regional reach

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Last Updated : 03 June 2024, 05:30 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2024, 05:30 IST
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The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is crucial in our day-to-day movement. With the evolution of space programmes and technologies, this is also becoming a theatre of competition between nations. Navigation is also a source of crucial information. As with all space-related technologies, this also has dual-use capacity, and can be used for monitoring and locating crucial infrastructure.

On the benign side, it is essential for the movement of resources, people, and information. As a result, it has developed into a very profitable commercial endeavour, and it is not surprising that today there are multiple players who want to gain a foothold in this area.

In addition to the economic aspect, a successful and commercially viable navigation system also underscores the space capabilities of countries, and can be a parameter to judge its success and failure. A successful navigation system is a feather in the cap for any space-aspiring nation.

Bilateral or multilateral sharing of navigation technology and data is also a path adopted by countries. However, with sharing, the fear of access denial is also prominent, especially if there is a conflict. It can also be used as a bargaining tool to mould and influence the user country’s foreign policies and decisions. Given this backdrop, this article aims to provide an overview of a comparison between China’s BeiDou and India’s NavIC.

BeiDou and NavIC

China launched its first BeiDou satellite in 2000, and by 2020 it was successfully operating its third generation of the system. Today, BeiDou is operational in all domestically-manufactured vehicles and mobile phones. In 2023, as per the Civil Aviation Administration of China, BeiDou was recognised as a global standard by the International Civil Aviation Organization of the United Nations. BeiDou has 56 operational satellites, and it is capable of providing better data and precision to its users. In 2023, the value of the system was around $70 billion. According to Global Times, to support the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) the Chinese communication system today covers the whole of China, Southeast Asia, Africa, West Asia, and South Asia. It also is functional in Europe and the Pacific. It provides Internet access and high-speed broadband.

One challenge with BeiDou is that it is a two-way navigation system, and can pinpoint the location of the service users and transmit it back to the satellites.

NavIC has been developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and consists of eight satellites. The first satellite was launched in July 2013. It covers the whole of India, and is in the process of extending its reach to 3,000 kms beyond the Indian borders. The Indian government is in the process of launching NavIC as a platform for all mobile devices by 2025. NavIC, thus, has primarily a domestic reach.

Given the overview of both the systems, the gap between BeiDou and NavIC is quite apparent. The Chinese system, given its reach and precision, can be considered a global system, while the Indian system is domestic with minimal regional reach. This disparity also provides Beijing far superior access to data and monitoring, and it gives it an edge in any conflict situation.

The advance nature of BeiDou also reduces the Chinese dependence on the Global Positioning System (GPS), and it has its own operating ecosystem. On the other hand, New Delhi will continue to be dependent on GPS for a few more years, and lacks its own source of data for any monitoring or analysis.

There have also been reports which argue that the Chinese navigation system is more updated, precise, and faster compared to the GPS, which has been the global system for a very long time. The Chinese have clearly gauged the necessity and use of a functional navigation system for its economic and military growth, and the BeiDou has been developed and is also in the fray to replace the GPS. With the expansion of the BRI and the strengthening of the Chinese automobile industry, the reach of BeiDou is going to continuously expand.

As with every space technology, navigation is also dual-use, and has become central to geopolitical aspirations. There had been reports that China had provided data to Russia for the ongoing Ukraine war. Today, Beijing and Moscow are keen to co-operate in developing the navigation systems (BeiDou and GLOSNASS) jointly. This will further enhance China’s reach.

The use of BeiDou for BRI projects provides China with advanced knowledge of the South Asian region, and gives it an edge if there is any future conflict between Beijing and New Delhi. The Chinese eyes in the sky which are more advanced provide Beijing an advantage and a clearer picture of geopolitical ground realities.

(Gunjan Singh is Associate Professor, OP Jindal Global University.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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