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China has taken its rivalry with the U.S. to the heavens, entering the final stages of its effort to build a worldwide navigation system and cut its dependence on the American-owned GPS.

Location data beamed from GPS satellites are used for a variety of purposes -- including smartphones, car navigation systems, ID microchips inserted under pets' skin, and guided missiles -- and all those satellites are controlled by the U.S. Air Force.

The Chinese government has for years been working to develop an alternative, an effort that a U.S. security analyst called one of the largest space programs the country has undertaken.

"They don't want to depend on the U.S.' GPS," said Marshall Kaplan, a professor in the Aerospace Engineering Department at the University of Maryland. "The Chinese don't want to be subject to something that we can shut off."

The Beidou Navigation System, currently serving China and neighbors, is scheduled to be accessible worldwide by 2020 as part of President Xi Jinping's strategy to make his country a global leader in next-generation technologies. Its implementation reverberates through the corporate world as makers of semiconductors, electric vehicles and airplanes modify products to also connect with Beidou in order to keep doing business in the world's second-biggest economy.

Implementation is approaching critical mass after the launch of at least 18 satellites this year, including three this month. On Nov. 19, China launched two Beidou machines, increasing the number in operation to more than 40. It plans to add 11 more by 2020.

Beidou is one element of China's campaign to displace Western dominance in aerospace. A state-owned company is developing planes to replace those from Airbus SE and Boeing Co., and domestic startups are building rockets to challenge the commercial-launch businesses of Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.

Next month, China is scheduled to launch Chang'e 4, a lunar probe that aims to make the first soft landing by a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. A Mars probe and rover are scheduled for liftoff in 2020.

China started developing Beidou in the 1990s and will spend an estimated $8.98 billion to $10.6 billion on it by 2020, according to a 2017 analysis by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a U.S. government panel.

"The Beidou system has become one of the great achievements in China's 40 years of reform," Xi said in a Nov. 5 letter to a United Nations committee on satellite navigation.

The system, named after the Chinese word for the Big Dipper star pattern, is at the core of an industry that will generate more than $57 billion of revenue in 2020, according to a forecast by the China Satellite Navigation Office.

Beidou also has potential for export as part of China's "Belt and Road" initiative to build political and economic ties through funding of infrastructure projects in other countries, the U.S.-China security commission said.

NavInfo Co., a maker of electronic maps that's backed by Tencent Holdings Ltd., wants to begin mass-producing semiconductors for navigation systems using Beidou, said Wang Yan, a project director.

Beijing-based NavInfo, which supplies Tesla Inc. and BMW AG, expects annual demand of 15 million Beidou-linked chips for autonomous vehicles. In September, NavInfo started providing Beidou-enabled mapping and positioning services for the government of Singapore.

That carries potential implications for the balance of power between the nations, as Beidou's deployment likely will fuel creation of a supply network for China's People's Liberation Army.

"The PLA will additionally have its own domestic 'industrial chain' on which to draw for secure components," the U.S.-China security commission said.

Qianxun Spatial Intelligence Inc., a Shanghai-based venture between e-commerce titan Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and state-owned defense contractor China North Industries Group Corp., provides positioning services for cars, public safety and civil aviation using Beidou and other networks.

To help stay competitive against budding Chinese counterparts, foreign companies are including Beidou compatibility in their products. Qualcomm Inc., the biggest maker of chips used in smartphones, has been supporting Beidou "for a long time," the San Diego-based company said. Those chip sets also are used in wearables and automobiles.

Most smartphones from global sales leader Samsung Electronics Co. support Beidou in addition to GPS, the Suwon, South Korea-based company said, as do handsets from Chinese rivals Huawei Technologies Co. and Xiaomi Corp., according to state media.

China is the world's largest auto market, and the government wants all car-navigation systems to be Beidou-compatible within two years. Volkswagen AG -- the market leader in passenger car sales -- is changing the equipment in its vehicles to enable network access, the company said.

Toyota Motor Corp. is in discussions with companies about Beidou, the Japanese automaker said.

Business on 11/27/2018

Print Headline: Firms prepare for arrival of China's GPS alternative

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