Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

China’s BeiDou: New Dimensions of Great Power Competition

| February 2023

BeiDou is China’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which reached full global coverage for the first time in 2020. Like the pioneering U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), BeiDou provides Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) data worldwide. BeiDou illustrates Beijing’s strategic deployment of dual-use technology to enhance China’s geopolitical power—a dynamic that increasingly shapes U.S.-China competition below the threshold of war.

Although Beijing developed BeiDou primarily for military purposes, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) takes a broader view of GNSS capabilities and is encouraging foreign nations to rely on BeiDou for civilian uses. In several regions of the world, BeiDou and its supporting ground infrastructure provide the most accessible and accurate PNT data of any operating GNSS constellation. BeiDou thereby provides a foundation for Chinese infrastructure exports via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and related Digital Silk Road (DSR) as well as consumer offerings. The integration of BeiDou’s PNT data with ground station enhancements, 5G telecommunications, and critical infrastructure enhances China’s soft power through political and economic relationships and the sale of Chinese technology. Beijing’s export of this technology ecosystem may also pose specific security risks via technical manipulation or surveillance—including through BeiDou’s noteworthy two-way messaging capability.

The United States and its international partners should evaluate more closely the effects of global reliance upon BeiDou and associated infrastructure and products. Such reliance may increase states’ vulnerability to the Chinese government in ways that negatively affect U.S. interests and those of its democratic allies. Policymakers should consider how best to address and promote alternatives to Beijing’s strategic use of GNSS commercial technology.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sewall, Sarah, Tyler Vandenberg and Kaj Malden. “China’s BeiDou: New Dimensions of Great Power Competition.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 2023.