A Conveyor Belt for Progress and Influence
China’s “Belt and Road” (B & R) initiative has been formulated to offer new opportunities for its economic growth. Like other Chinese projects in recent times, this is also a gigantic proposal linking China with Europe through Central and West Asian region. There are proposed linkages with Africa too. The actualisation of this initiative involves connectivity by road/rail and sea. It is obvious that maritime connectivity would play a major role in this project because today more than 90 per cent of global trade happens via sea routes. The connectivity using rail and road network is also of importance because it would help integrating China with various parts of the world for global commerce. With this project, China is seen using commerce as a tool to expand to its geopolitical and geostrategic influence.
Although the aerial medium is the fastest for travel, it has never been a preferred medium for cargo traffic owing to weight and cost considerations. However, this does not mean that China would not depend on ‘air’ as a medium for its B & R initiative. In fact along with ‘air’ China is also found significantly depending on ‘space’ as a medium to ensure the smooth progression of this initiative.
The idea behind the B & R initiative is rooted in history. The ancient Silk Road was a 7,000-km-long pathway used by camel-driving merchants some 2,000 years ago. Today it is known by various names like the Silk Road Economic Belt, the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, One Belt, One Road (OBOR). Broadly, this initiative has two components—the “Silk Road Economic Belt” (SREB), a Eurasian land corridor from the Pacific coast to the Baltic Sea and the 21st century “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR). Also, there are some additional components, like the “Air Silk Road” and a “Space-based New Silk Road.” At present, in geographical terms the B & R initiative has not emerged as a network which could be specifically demarcated by using explicit points or lines on the map; it is essentially an area over land and sea where China’s politico-economic interests converge. Involving air and space elements allows China to have a greater flexibility to expand both business and influence over this region of its interest.
Air Silk Road
Aviation would have an important role in enhancing the B & R network. Presently, it is easier and cost effective to develop infrastructure around airports in comparison to the development of road and rail communication and transportation systems. In near future, China is proposing to invest approximately US$82 billion domestically for undertaking around 193 projects. Out of these, 51 strategic projects (costing approximately US$32 billion) would directly serve the B & R initiative. China has the world’s second-largest civil aviation network, with 52 airlines and 202 airports operating on more than 600 routes connecting over fifty countries. During the last two years, China has built 15 airports and expanded another 28 in provinces along the routes of the B & R initiative. China is keen to increase direct connectivity with various Central Asian and European states. This would also help them to boost domestic aviation industry significantly.
However, only investment in aviation infrastructure is not sufficient and China would be required to adopt business friendly policies. Of particular importance are the issues dealing with the airspace management. China would be required to open up the military-controlled airspace and also allow access to lower altitude airspace. China has declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea during November 2013 which generated significant amount of controversy owing to restrictions on aviation traffic. China is yet to clearly establish any claim on ADIZ in the South China Sea, but there is no guarantee that China would not do so. It would be of interest to see how China manages these issues in its ‘Air Silk road’ project
In the satellite technology arena, China has made phenomenal progress during the last decade. Presently, China has around 120 satellites in orbit mainly providing communication, remote-sensing and navigational services. Their communications and remote-sensing networks have near global coverage. They have already established indigenous satellite navigational footprint over Asia-Pacific region with their Beidou (Compass) navigation satellite network and are expecting to widen this footprint globally within next five years. Various real-time inputs provided by their multiple satellite constellations would help them significantly in conducting various traffic planning and management activities on land and sea for B & R initiative.
Space Silk Road
The “Space-based Silk Road” is likely to encompass many powerful communications satellites and high resolution remote-sensing satellites. Naturally, Beidou system would be an inevitable component of this infrastructure. China is also collaborating with the service providers for the Russian satellite navigational system called GLONASS. Currently, GLONASS Union and Chinese manufacturing company Norinco have proposed joint development and production of a multisystem receiver module for satellite navigation systems. Their idea is to launch Russian-Chinese receivers for satellite navigation systems on the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) markets. The budget for this project would be approximately US$10 million.
The Institute of Space & Earth Information Science (ISEIS) of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CU) has signed an agreement with Dong Fang Teng Fei (DFTF, a subsidiary of the Beijing Xiangzhi company) during 2014 to join “Space Silk Road” for developing global satellite services. To promote international services for Chinese satellites, important aerospace enterprises and research institutes like the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, China Satellite Communication Co Ltd, etc have collaboratively formed an International Alliance of Satellite Application Service (ASAS) in August 2014 and have initiated the “Space Silk Road” programme to coordinate international cooperative research in space-based satellite technology for the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ strategy.
Apart from the governmental and private agencies, a few interdisciplinary non-profit NGO’s are also involving themselves in this project; the China Satellite Global Services Alliance (CSGSA) is one such agency. They are investing in developing ground facilities. Launching satellites is only one aspect of data collection. It is important to have the ground infrastructure for the purposes of collection, analysis and dissipation of data. Currently CSGSA has established trial satellite receiving bases in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Hainan and Fujian, all important locations for the B & R projects. Subsequently, for establishing receiving stations they propose to move westwards over land, through Central Asia and its neighbourhood to Europe, the Indian Ocean to Africa and to Latin America. China would require assistance from the Central Asian states, Malta, Malaysia, India, the US, Brazil and Norway for establishing satellite receiving facilities within their borders.
The idea of the “Space Silk Road” appears to be taking a definitive shape. On May 29, 2015, the CSGSA and the International Trade Centre (ITC) jointly held the 2nd China Satellite Global Services International Cooperative Talks where international experts discussed the construction of the Space Silk Road. With increase in global aviation traffic in general and increase in traffic in the region owing to B & R network, a rise in the safety demands of civilian airlines is expected. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine highlights the need for a more comprehensive satellite network to provide additional and real-time information about aircraft’s position.
The existing black boxes in aircrafts provide information only after a mishap (provided they are found and are not damaged). China proposes to use the Space Silk Road system to create a live-feed “black box” which would provide constant global coverage of all air, shipping and overland routes. The system is also expected to enable planes and satellites to communicate with each other. China proposes to use Beidou navigational network as one of the important component in this system. Naturally, all this would require addition to the civilian aircraft equipment inventory adding relevant transmitters, receivers, data storage equipment etc. This could generate additional business too.
Seamless internet connectivity would be a necessity for the success of B & R initiative. There would be problems with aircrafts and ships passing through areas covered by different satellite signals. The main satellite company in China, China Satellite Communications, has plans to launch new satellites using Ka-band frequency (offers higher speeds and requires a smaller satellite dish for operations) that will cover the B & R initiative region in near future. However, this is one area where more attention needs to be paid. China also may have to look for other options like high-altitude drones or near-space systems to ensure that no internet blackout takes place.
Silk Road: Sky is the Limit
For China, the Belt and Road initiative is a long-term strategy designed for it to assume a bigger role in global affairs through the business route. Various aerial and space-based platforms will play an important in making this strategy successful. Such platforms hold a larger promise than being merely labelled as transportation (passenger and cargo) and information provider platforms. Aircrafts and satellites have commercial, political/diplomatic and strategic significance. In the years to come, China would be required to make more investments both technologically and financially in these sectors.
For India there is much to learn from such initiatives. Today, India is proposing to launch a satellite for SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries. This satellite would be launched during 2016 with an aim to assist the region in education, health and communication. Next year India is also expected to operationalise its own navigational system called IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System). India is proposing to offer navigation, tracking and mapping services to their neighbours by using IRNSS platform. Today, India has one of the biggest remote-sensing satellite networks in place. Now, the time has come for India to use all these services in its best interest. India could develop a mega business model which could operate in the SAARC region and beyond.
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(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
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