The European Union's recent launch of the first of 30 satellites in its multibillion-dollar Galileo global navigation system was hailed across the Continent as a giant step in breaking the U.S monopoly of space-based networks. But China's participation in the project raises important security issues that need to be addressed to prevent a new feud between America and Europe.
Galileo is Europe's response to the U.S. military's Global Positioning System, or GPS. The American armed forces use the GPS to guide warplanes and precision weapons. A less accurate nonmilitary version is used in navigational systems in cars, trucks, boats and airplanes.
Europeans argue that Galileo will be more accurate than the civilian version of GPS. By more precisely determining the location of people using the device, Galileo opens the way for new uses — such as helping police, fire departments and ambulances better locate people in emergencies.
But Galileo will also have important military applications — and that's why America should be concerned. The system will improve the ability of armed forces to coordinate the movement of units in battle, increasing their effectiveness. It will also improve the precision of weapons guidance systems so that bombs and missiles hit their targets more accurately.
Galileo could play an important role in speeding up China's military modernization program. China is currently developing a range of land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, long-range surface-to-air missiles, and anti-radiation missiles. If China and the United States wind up in a military confrontation over Taiwan in the next decade, Galileo technology could also improve Chinese precision-strike capabilities against U.S. and Taiwan forces.
Under a cooperation agreement, China has pledged to participate in research and development on space technologies, ground equipment, and application systems for Galileo. So far, the Chinese government has invested about $240 million in the project through China Galileo Industries Ltd., a state-run company.
China has a history of using foreign technology and assistance to improve its military. This has increased China's ability to copy weapon systems, integrate advanced technologies into China's production lines, and raise the technical expertise of Chinese workers involved in defense production.
Chinese participation in Galileo is part of a gradual trend in economic and defense cooperation with Europe that has seen European governments and businesses sell China technology that could be used for military purposes in recent years. This includes British micro- and nano-satellite technology that can be used in anti-satellite weapon systems, British airborne early warning radar that can be used in military aircraft, German engines that can be used in conventional submarines, and French and Italian technology that can be used in attack helicopters.
There are several steps the United States and Europe can take to ameliorate U.S. security concerns and avert a new trans-Atlantic clash over Galileo:
Discuss China's current and future participation in Galileo frankly, and answer several questions: What is China's role in Galileo? What kind of access will it have to sensitive technology? What firewalls are in place to make it more difficult for China to acquire sensitive technologies through Galileo?
Continue revising the European code of conduct on arms exports, and consider transforming it into an official common position enforced with export-control legislation. The current code is not legally binding, enabling member states like France to export a growing amount of military and dual-use technology to China.
Reach an agreement on European systems and technologies banned from export to China. European governments and defense companies are not likely to sell weapons or platforms directly to China. But the United States is concerned about the export of subsystems and related equipment and technologies for missiles, stealth systems, satellites, command and control capabilities, naval platforms and military aircraft.
Maintain the European Union's arms embargo against China. As a recent European Parliament report argued, significant European arms exports will increase the risk of regional instability in East Asia.
America's concerns about Chinese participation in the Galileo program are understandable. But so is the European Union's unwillingness to give the U.S. veto power over Chinese participation. Unless America and Europe can agree on a position they find mutually acceptable, a dispute is almost inevitable.
Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, and author of “The Rise of Europe.” F. Stephen Larrabee holds the corporate chair in European security at Rand.
Geoffrey Joyce is an economist at the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on January 13, 2006.