fter having to take the unprecedented step of dipping into European Union agricultural-subsidy funds to salvage the struggling Galileo satellite navigation project, European governments are facing yet another Galileo challenge, this one from China.
According to European government officials, there are questions about Galileo’s compatibility with China’s planned Beidou/Compass global satellite navigation system. Specifically, they say, the systems might interfere with one another and it might not be possible to jam one and not the other. So in the event of a threat to a dam or a nuclear installation, to cite two examples, European security officials would not be able to block Beidou/Compass over European territory without leaving their own emergency-response teams without access to Galileo’s encrypted Public Regulated Service. China’s proposed system could pose a similar problem for the military signals from the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system.
European officials say that with the deadline for settling on the technical specifications for Galileo signals fast approaching, China has refused to engage in discussions that would enable them to move ahead with development without fear that unresolved issues will come back to bite them. Galileo already is well behind schedule and promises to be
more expensive than originally planned. Further delays would be problematic; an interference or compatibility issue that arises once Galileo development is well under way could be disastrous.
Guifei, head of the National Remote Sensing Center of China, said in February that China had not yet settled on the frequencies for the Beidou/Compass system. That might explain China’s apparent reluctance to enter into serious coordination discussions. Another possibility is that Beijing is being difficult in a bid to prompt European officials to clarify China’s role in Galileo. A few years ago, Europe brought China in as a major Galileo partner but then balked at giving China full access to the system
Part of the problem here is China’s general tendency to be vague about its intentions, deliberately or not. But Beijing needs to recognize that it is in its own interest to engage with the Europeans on satellite navigation, because otherwise China could face difficulty with its own system. As European officials have pointed out, compatibility problems will affect Beidou/Compass the same as Galileo.
Mr. Jing has said China wishes to coordinate not only with Galileo, but also with the GPS and Russian Glonass satellite navigation systems. This is encouraging, but given the lack of transparency in China’s decision-making process, it is difficult to tell not only who has the authority to make technical decisions affecting a strategic asset such as Beidou/Compass, but also whether those so empowered share Mr. Jing’s position.
Nevertheless, a Chinese delegation led by JiananCao, vice minister for science and technology, is scheduled to travel to Europe the week of April 21, and European officials are looking forward to the visit as an opportunity to make real progress on the issue.
China, which has gone to some lengths in recent years to signal its readiness to engage other nations in space activity, can demonstrate its seriousness by coming to Europe prepared to roll up its sleeves and get down to business. These discussions have added importance because Beidou/Compass also must be coordinated with GPS, as was the case with Galileo. Any direct Sino-U.S. discussions on preserving the Pentagon’s ability to jam China’s system – while maintaining access to its own – will necessarily be complicated, especially given the long-simmering tensions between the two over Taiwan and other issues. Europe therefore is probably best positioned to take the lead in coordinating the three systems.
Meanwhile, China needs to become a full and active participant in the International Committee on GNSS – Global Navigation Satellite System – which is expected to hold its third meeting this coming December in Pasadena, Calif. This group could play an increasingly important role as more countries seek to deploy global or regional satellite navigation systems. Clearly, the time when compatibility and other issues related to these systems can be resolved on a bilateral basis is passing.