China has said it is willing to offer its neighbouring countries use of its home-grown satellite navigation system free of charge, in a strategic push that has already garnered interest from a number of countries including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand, according to officials.

Chinese officials said on Friday they intend to widen use of the Beidou satellite network, which already has 16 satellites serving the Asia-Pacific and has been promoted here as an alternative to the American Global Positioning System (GPS). The focus will be on countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and particularly in South and Southeast Asia, where the satellites offered the highest accuracy.

China has already agreed deals with Pakistan and Thailand on use of the Beidou network, officials said.

In recent months, China has also had consultations with Sri Lanka, for which it has already launched a satellite, and Bangladesh, over cooperation on satellite use.

China’s deepening cooperation with these countries prompted the Indian government, earlier this year, to belatedly prod the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in being more active in providing technological assistance to countries in the neighbourhood in launching satellites.

For China, however, granting use of its 16-satellite Beidou network – which will be expand to 35 satellites by 2020 to provide global coverage – offers an added advantage.

“Most countries in the Asia Pacific region can use the complete Beidou system,” said Ran Chengqi, Director of China Satellite Navigation Office. “We have open attitude towards international cooperation, and we encourage Beidou to provide better services to the countries in the Asia-Pacific region.”

First agreement

In May, China signed its first inter-government agreement on the use of Beidou with Pakistan, Mr. Ran said, during the visit of Premier Li Keqiang to Islamabad.

Early next year, Thailand will become the first country to build a satellite station based on Beidou, with both countries signing a $ 319 million deal, according to State media.

Mr. Ran told The Hindu that while China was open to any country using the system, so far there was “no specific cooperation” between the Indian and Chinese governments. “With India, we now have cooperation only under the multilateral frameworks, such as the United Nations,”he said.

Mr. Ran said the system had improved its position accuracy to five to seven metres in many parts of China and in the ASEAN region, and to 10 metres in other parts of Asia.

Widely deployed

The system, which was first launched in 2011 for use only by the government and military, has over the past year begun to be widely deployed for civilian uses domestically, he said, with 80 per cent of passenger buses and trucks in China using the system. The Chinese State Council, or Cabinet, said in a September report that the domestic satellite navigation industry would be valued at 400 billion Yuan (Rs. 4 lakh crore) by 2020.

In a briefing on Friday, Mr. Ran said the system also offered vital support to China’s defence and security needs, describing it as a technology without distinction between civilian and military use, although he declined to comment on its defence applications. “What use it has for national defence,” he said, “is an issue for the Defence Ministry or Armament departments to consider.”

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