Int'l Herald Tribune
 

GPS substitute for China?

By David Lague
International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, April 19, 2005

BRUSSELS While Europe's embargo on arms sales to China seems set to remain in place, Western defense experts warn that Beijing will score a military victory when Chinese companies begin research next month on the EU's Galileo satellite navigation system.

The Chinese government in March selected four state-owned space technology companies to oversee research and development as part of China's participation in the 3.2 billion, or $4.15 billion, Galileo network, which is due to enter service in 2008.

The first development projects between the European Union and China are under negotiation, and contracts are expected to be signed by early May, said Hans Peter Marchlewski, a spokesman for the Galileo Joint Undertaking, the body set up to manage the development phase of the system.

Galileo is a network of 30 satellites and ground stations designed to provide a highly accurate navigation and positioning system. The system has both civilian and military applications, which Beijing openly acknowledges.

Analysts of China's People's Liberation Army, also known as the PLA, say that the skill China would gain from participating in the system's development would allow it to close an information gap that now gives the United States the advantage in the precise targeting of missiles and "smart weapons." The system would also allow Chinese military leaders to improve sharply their command and control of forces in the field.

China's acquisition of the Galileo system will be a major setback to U.S. efforts to limit China's access to advanced military technology. Critics of China's participation in the Galileo project say that the EU is, in effect, assisting China's military modernization despite the embargo. In China's latest defense white paper, published in 2004, military planners make it clear that the use of advanced information technology was a top priority in efforts to make the army a modern force.

"Access to secure navigation satellite signals is absolutely essential to the PLA realizing its vision," said Rick Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center and an expert on China's military modernization. "With secure access to Galileo, the EU is playing a critical role in helping the PLA fight its future wars," Fisher said.

Missiles spearhead the Chinese military's strategy for gaining the upper hand over Taiwan, a democratically governed island that mainland China regards as a renegade province.

Taiwan's defense minister, Lee Jye, told Parliament on March 9 that mainland China had 700 missiles aimed at the island.

Modern antiship and antiaircraft missiles are also weapons the Chinese military planners hope would deter any U.S. intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, according to military analysts.

The United States and its allies use the network of Pentagon-developed Navstar global positioning system, or GPS, satellites to navigate with a high degree of accuracy almost anywhere on the earth's surface and to guide weapons to their targets over long distances.

Signals from the GPS system are also available free to civilian users, but the United States can restrict their availability in selected areas if it believes there is a threat to its security.

Richard North, a military analyst with the London-based anti-EUresearch institution, the Bruges Group, said China's participation in Galileo subverted the arms embargo. "You are handing a gift to the Chinese which makes them a very formidable enemy," he said.

EU nations on April 15 failed to agree on lifting their 15-year ban on arms sales to China, which was imposed after the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. France and Germany have taken the lead in pushing for an end to the ban, despite strong opposition from the United States and Japan.

Senior EU officials have rejected suggestions that China could gain a military advantage from Galileo. They explain that the network was designed primarily for civilian commercial use and could earn 250 billion a year by 2010.

A more accurate encoded signal is to be available for EU police and military forces to fight crime and illegal immigration.

This signal, known as the Public Regulated Service, or PRS, would be withheld from China and any other non-EU participants in the system.

However, critics of Chinese participation in Galileo believe the EU would find it extremely difficult to discriminate against a China with increasing economic and political power if it insisted on access to the service.

Even if the PRS signal and receiver equipment is off limits to China, North believes that Chinese technicians with inside knowledge of the technology will find it relatively easy to reverse engineer receivers. They could also gain access to the codes. "They are going to know a lot about the system," he said.

Defense experts also argue that research work on Galileo will assist China in developing its own, independent satellite navigation system.

Like the European Union, China publicly stresses that Galileo is a commercial navigation system that will serve the transport, fisheries, agriculture, mineral exploration and mapping industries, along with emergency services.

But, reports in the state-controlled media openly refer to the network's military role. An editorial in the official China Daily newspaper on Oct. 28 acknowledged that the United States makes signals from its GPS system available free to civilian users, but warned that the Pentagon could deny access in times of conflict.

"However, Galileo promises a more reliable and accurate service unaffected by military needs and uninterrupted access for all users, both civil and military," the editorial said.

As the first non-EU partner in Galileo, China in September 2003 agreed to invest 200 million in the system. Of the Chinese investment, all but 5 million would be spent on research and development that China undertakes. "They will pay for their own work with their own money," Marchlewski said.

In October 2004, China's National Remote Sensing Center formally joined the Galileo Joint Undertaking. The center on March 9 appointed four Chinese companies - China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, China Satcom and the Chinese Academy of Space Technology - to work with the EU in commercializing Galileo in China.

A spokeswoman for the center, Zhao Jing, said China wanted to participate in all areas of the Galileo program, including space and ground technologies and user applications on the basis of "equal rights and obligations."