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In 165 countries, China’s Beidou eclipses American GPS

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In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, a bustling and chaotic city of 4.8m people, the Deliver Addis service has soared in popularity as the app sends food to a customer’s location with remarkable accuracy.

The secret behind this precision is Chinese satellite technology originally designed to support the military.

The app’s meteoric growth is powered in part by the Beidou satellite navigation system, for which recent advances underscore Beijing’s gains in the global fight for data dominance.

Miyuki Koga, the proprietor of a Japanese restaurant in the African metropolis, notes that “smartphone positioning information has improved by leaps and bounds” since she moved here 13 years ago. “We can even manage deliveries in the coronavirus pandemic.”

The US was in the vanguard of this technology, launching the first satellite that now makes up the Global Positioning System back in 1978. But GPS, long the only game in town, is being eclipsed by Beidou.

China completed Beidou in June after development began in 1994. Beijing’s aims are more than economic.

This article is from Nikkei Asia, a global publication with a uniquely Asian perspective on politics, the economy, business and international affairs. Our own correspondents and outside commentators from around the world share their views on Asia, while our Asia300 section provides in-depth coverage of 300 of the biggest and fastest-growing listed companies from 11 economies outside Japan.

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Data from US satellite receiver company Trimble shows that capital cities in 165 of 195 countries — or 85 per cent of those capitals — are observed more frequently by Beidou satellites than by GPS, Nikkei found.

As many as 30 Beidou satellites transmit continuous signals to Addis Ababa, twice as many as in the US system. Much of this is due to connections with inexpensive smartphones from China.

GPS originally was built for military applications including missile guidance and tracking troop positions. By developing satellite technology that rivals the American system, Beijing can enhance its own military capabilities and pose a threat to Washington.

For most of the half-century since the beginnings of the internet, the US represented the undisputed driving force in cyber space. But the dynamics of this fast-growing field are shifting rapidly.

And the fight for data dominance is being waged not just in orbit far above the Earth, but also on the oceans.

In May, concerns arose after a Chinese government research vessel, the Xiang Yang Hong 01, appeared suddenly off the northeastern coast of the US territory of Guam deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and began engaging in suspicious behaviour.

Though Beijing has repeatedly raised tensions in the South China Sea, where it claims sovereignty over a vast majority of the region, and in East China Sea waters where it has butted heads with Japan, the Guam incident was a new development.

“China’s attention has turned to interests in the Pacific Ocean,” said Yasuhiro Matsuda, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo.

The voyages of the Chinese marine research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 01 over the past year, as documented by tracking service MarineTraffic.

Nikkei examined the activities of 34 Chinese government ships via the website MarineTraffic, which tracks vessel movements worldwide based on public data from automatic identification systems.

The tracked voyages of the Xiang Yang Hong 01 show journeys near the US holdings of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands made in a systematic pattern. Guam hosts an American military base.

Trips were made to the Indian Ocean via the strategic chokehold of the Strait of Malacca.

“This route overlaps with the Belt and Road economic zone advocated by China,” said Koichi Sato, a professor at JF Oberlin University.

Thirteen of the ships sailed in the Pacific beyond the “first island chain” — archipelagos off the East Asian coast encompassing Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines — in the year through November 4. One Chinese vessel stayed near Antarctica for around three and a half months.

Ships ostensibly tasked with surveying offshore resources may be covertly collecting data for military use, such as mapping out future submarine routes. China’s military reportedly is intensifying submarine operations, and information on ocean currents and seafloor geography is key to this goal.

In an era when all technology has been enlisted into information warfare, China is looking a step ahead to new theatres of competition: space, cyber and even what has been called “brain supremacy”.

The Nikkei series Century of Data was a 2019 winner of the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association (NSK) Awards, the country’s most prestigious journalism prizes.

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on November 25 2020. ©2020 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved

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Regulators close ranks on crypto

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Regulators are continuing to step up their scrutiny of cryptocurrencies, with central banks and South Korea’s tax authorities demonstrating fresh concerns.

In a report published on Wednesday, the Bank for International Settlements, the global body for central banks, argues that digital tokens such as bitcoin have few redeeming features and “work against the public good”. It also dismissed stablecoins — a link between crypto and conventional assets — as an “appendage” to traditional money.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BIS did endorse the development of digital currencies backed by central banks, saying they could be a tool to achieve greater financial inclusion and lower the high costs of payments. “Central bank digital currencies . . . offer in digital form the unique advantages of central bank money: settlement finality, liquidity and integrity,” it said.

In contrast, bitcoin wasted energy and cryptocurrencies were “speculative assets rather than money, and in many cases are used to facilitate money laundering, ransomware attacks and other financial crimes”.

South Korea has acted against the financial crime of tax evasion, with more than Won53bn ($47m) of bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptoassets confiscated from 12,000 people. Officials said it was the largest “cryptocurrency seizure for back taxes in Korean history” and noted that local exchanges had allegedly been used to conceal assets because they did not collect the resident registration numbers of account holders. Many of South Korea’s 60 crypto exchanges are battling to meet regulatory conditions to operate beyond September.

This week’s #techAsia newsletter asks whether the death knell is being sounded for cryptocurrencies. That could be the case in China, where it is scaling up tests of its official digital renminbi, and appears serious about stamping out the crypto industry on its soil. Bitcoin fell below $30,000 on Tuesday following the latest regulatory crackdown, but it has recovered to be worth more than $34,000 today.

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2. SoftBank not a ‘one-man show’, says Son
Masayoshi Son has told shareholders that SoftBank will not prioritise short-term trading gains as the company behind the world’s most aggressive technology fund was grilled over governance failures after the collapses of Greensill and Katerra. At its annual shareholder meeting, the 63-year-old billionaire founder defended the Japanese conglomerate’s governance structure, saying the board was not “Masayoshi Son’s one-man show”.

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China bolsters ties with Myanmar junta despite international condemnation

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Trade and diplomatic ties between Myanmar and China are normalising in the face of intense domestic opposition and international condemnation of the military junta that seized power in February.

Beijing has strengthened relations with Myanmar’s military leaders despite a series of violent attacks against Chinese business interests in the country after Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was toppled.

Yun Sun, an expert on Myanmar-China relations with the Stimson Center, a US think-tank, said Beijing had already made a “fundamental assessment” that Myanmar was moving into another prolonged period of military rule.

“I think the Chinese can see that this military coup is successful and is here to stay,” she added.

The resumption of state-level engagements and economic activity signals that Myanmar is reverting to its traditional economic reliance on China. The country has used its larger neighbour as a buffer against international sanctions and divestment by foreign investors, who have announced plans to quit the country or shelved projects.

Since the coup, 875 people have been killed by the junta and 6,242 arrested, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights group. The country’s economy and public services were severely disrupted by mass protests in the three months that followed the putsch, and have only partially recovered.

The resumption of bilateral trade will fuel the widespread suspicion among anti-coup resistance groups that China was prepared to support the new military regime.

The cumulative value of China’s imports from Myanmar for the first five months of the year was $3.38bn, up from $2.43bn in 2020 and $2.56bn in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, according to official Chinese customs data.

Exports to Myanmar for the same period have not recovered to the same extent, however. By the end of May, goods valued at $4.28bn had been shipped to Myanmar, compared with $4.56bn and $4.79bn in the two previous years.

In a further sign of strengthening diplomatic relations, Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, met coup leader and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, the capital, in June. In a subsequent statement, Chen referred to Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of Myanmar.

China was among the countries that abstained in a UN general assembly vote last week calling on the international community to halt the flow of arms to Myanmar and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees. 

Beijing had good relations with the government of the deposed leader, who is in detention facing multiple criminal charges. However, it has refrained from criticising the military, fanning anger among the mass protest movement that sprang up after the coup. 

Beyond being Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, China also has strategic infrastructure investments in the country, including energy pipelines that give Beijing a critical link to the Indian Ocean.

James Char, a Myanmar expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said many people in Myanmar still blamed the Chinese government and business interests for complicity in supporting the military’s decades of rule before the transition to democracy.

“The Chinese, themselves, are very clear about [public sentiment in Myanmar],” Char said.

Attacks on China-linked businesses in the wake of the coup culminated in an explosion at a Chinese-backed textile factory west of Yangon on June 11, according to reports from local Myanmar media, as well as junta-controlled information services and Chinese state media.

Beijing’s wariness of inflaming Myanmar protesters would probably slow Chinese direct investments and the resumption of planned larger-scale developments that formed part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, analysts said.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing



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Australia calls Great Barrier Reef warning politically motivated

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Australia has labelled a draft decision by the UN’s World Heritage Committee to include the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list as politically motivated.

The committee, which is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education, and selects Unesco World Heritage sites, proposed adding the world’s largest collection of coral reefs to the danger list because of the damaging impact of climate change and coastal development.

The designation could ultimately lead to the reef losing its World Heritage status, although officials said listing was intended to prompt emergency action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s eastern coast.

But Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, said the government had been “blindsided” by the committee’s finding and alleged there was a lack of consultation and transparency. She added that Canberra would challenge the draft decision.

“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended, what else can you conclude but that it is politics?” she said.

That the World Heritage Committee is chaired by a senior Chinese official has stoked suspicions in Canberra that it had been singled out over its diplomatic and trade clash with Beijing.

China-Australia relations have soured following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and Beijing’s imposition of tariffs on Australian wine and barley imports.

Ley said she and Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, had already spoken with Audrey Azoulay, Unesco director-general, to complain about the draft decision.

But scientists downplayed the suggestion that the “in danger” listing was politically motivated. Three mass bleaching events in five years demonstrated the need for the government to do more to tackle climate change, they said.

“I’m seeing some press coverage saying this is all a plot by China not to buy wine, lobsters and to screw the Barrier Reef. I think that’s pretty far-fetched given that the draft decision released overnight will be voted on by 21 countries,” said Terry Hughes, professor of marine biology at James Cook University.

The controversy will heap further international pressure on Canberra, which has been pressed by the US, UK and others to commit to a national target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In a draft decision due to be voted on next month, the committee urged Canberra to “provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change, in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and allow to meet water quality targets faster”.

It noted the loss of almost one-third of shallow-water coral cover following a “bleaching” event in 2016 — a process linked to warmer than normal water that can lead to a mass die-off of coral.

The row over the “in danger” listing occurred at a difficult time for Australia’s conservative coalition, which is embroiled in internal squabbling over climate policies.

On Monday, Barnaby Joyce, a climate sceptic and supporter of coal mining, ousted Michael McCormack to become leader of the National party, the junior coalition partner to the Liberal party, and Australia’s deputy prime minister. Joyce is expected to oppose any move to commit to net zero by 2050.

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