October 20, 2022 | Policy Brief

China, Russia Deepen Partnership on Satellite Navigation

October 20, 2022 | Policy Brief

China, Russia Deepen Partnership on Satellite Navigation

China and Russia signed contracts late last month to host ground stations for their respective global navigation satellite systems (GNSSs), BeiDou and GLONASS, which are alternatives to the U.S.-run Global Positioning System (GPS). These stations will improve the performance of their systems, which provide precision, navigation, and timing (PNT) services for both military and civilian purposes.

The two sides inked the contracts during the September 27 annual meeting of their Project Committee on Important Strategic Cooperation in Satellite Navigation, launched in 2015. He Yubin, head of the China Satellite Navigation System Committee, and Yuri Borisov, head of Russia’s state corporation Roscosmos, co-chaired the meeting.

Under the contracts, Beijing will place three ground monitoring stations at various locations throughout Russia, while Moscow will do the same in China. Both countries have sought to expand their respective networks of ground stations in recent years, aiming to bolster the performance of their systems. Sino-Russian talks on mutual hosting of ground stations have been ongoing since at least 2014.

Beijing and Moscow sides also said the China Satellite Navigation Office’s Testing and Evaluation Research Center and the Information and Analysis Center for Positioning, Navigation and Timing at Roscosmos’ Central Research Institute of Machine-Building signed a statement “on the joint provision of information support services” to BeiDou and GLONASS customers, without offering additional details.

Improving the PNT services offered by BeiDou and GLONASS would benefit Chinese and Russian military as well as civilian users. Both militaries are working to integrate PNT and other space services into their weapons and command-and-control systems, as the U.S. intelligence community warned last year. Some industry observers also fear Sino-Russian cooperation could help erode GPS’ international market share. Indeed, China’s People’s Daily has boasted that the GLONASS-BeiDou partnership could “break the U.S. ‘hegemony’ in satellite navigation” while mitigating the risk of reliance on GPS.

Beijing and Moscow also hope their GNSS cooperation will support advances in applications such as precision farming and unmanned vehicles, facilitate cross-border transportation, and help promote their systems internationally. BeiDou is central to Beijing’s quest to achieve dominance in space, and expanding BeiDou use abroad is a key element of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. To the extent Sino-Russian cooperation can promote civilian GLONASS use, as Roscosmos hopes, it could help cover operating costs and support the system’s repeatedly delayed modernization.

Last month’s agreements are only the latest development in Sino-Russian GNSS cooperation, part of their broader partnership in outer space. Their GNSS cooperation began in earnest after Western backlash against Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which led Moscow to accelerate its turn toward Beijing despite historical wariness about aiding China’s rapidly advancing space program. Most recently, at Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 summit, the two sides signed an agreement on “ensuring complementarity” between BeiDou’s and GLONASS’ respective time-keeping systems. This is a key first step toward broader interoperability, which can improve the accuracy and reliability of both systems.

Looking ahead, Moscow hopes China can help Russia defy Western sanctions by sourcing microelectronics to meet its space and broader military and economic needs. Russian illicit procurement networks often rely on obscure firms and cut-outs, but the Treasury Department should also keep an eye out for formal or informal involvement by state-affiliated Russian defense companies. For example, a company owned by JSC Shvabe, a U.S.-sanctioned holding company controlled by Russia’s state-owned Rostec defense conglomerate, maintains a subsidiary in Shenzhen for the express purpose of procuring microelectronics and other products, according to the company’s website.

The Biden administration should continue to remind Beijing of the risks of violating U.S. sanctions against Russia, including in the space industry. Any Chinese firms that refuse to listen should be swiftly punished.

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russian Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power. For more analysis from John, the Russian Program, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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