HELSINKI — The expansion of Chinese ground stations in South America is raising concerns about Beijing’s intentions in the region and in space, according to a new report.
“China’s space network in South America is part of a broader push by Beijing to establish itself as a leading global space power and the partner of choice in space for middle-income economies,” claims report released October 4 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The network, while it has clear civilian uses, could be used to spy on, track and potentially even target U.S. and other nations’ spacecraft, he says.
The report details China’s ground station presence in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, as well as through services provided by the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) in Chile. It also uses satellite imagery to highlight the facilities themselves.
Ground stations are vital to any space agent. This basic infrastructure is required to operate the spacecraft, facilitating the exchange of commands and data. Their importance means they are likely to be another area of competition for rival space powers.
Some of China’s assets, such as Neuquen in Argentina, are part of the China Deep Space Network and support lunar and interplanetary missions such as Chang’e-5 and Tianwen-1.
China has a network of ground stations in China and a presence in places like Namibia, but the infrastructure in South America is important to facilitate connections with spacecraft when they are in orbit in that part of the world.
However, the opacity of agreements with host countries and China’s space industry raises concerns about the potential for military applications of an inherently dual-use technology, the CSIS report says.
The risks “stem from the extensive influence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in China’s space ecosystem,” the CSIS report said, adding that the “PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF)—which is responsible for space, cyber and cyberspace and electronic warfare—has a role in almost all of China’s space activities.”
US military officials have expressed concerns in congressional testimony that the stations “could be used to spy on US assets and intercept sensitive information” given their proximity to the United States.
Beijing is not great about the military’s role in space, the report said, but added a warning that China’s main civilian space agency, the China National Space Agency, is “overshadowed by the military.”
A more nuanced assessment of the PLA’s involvement in areas of China’s space decision-making can be found elsewhere recent report published by the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI).
The report provides a detailed look at organizations known as Leading Small Groups (LSGs) through which the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the PLA, seeks to control its space programs.
While a PLA representative is present at both lunar exploration and LSG human spaceflights, they are one of a number of representatives from government and state-owned enterprises and space-related organizations.
However, the CSIS report notes that the opacity of China’s activities, intentions and organization raises concerns.
Many of China’s ground station assets, including a fleet of “Yuanwang” tracking ships, are controlled by China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), a sub-entity of PLASSF.
Espacio Lejano, a ground station in Neuquen, Argentina, is owned by CLTC and has attracted attention in the past. ONE contract between the two governments also stipulates that Argentina “does not interfere with or disrupt” normal activities conducted at the station during the 50-year agreement.
CSIS cites testimony from Admiral Craig Faller, then commander of the US Southern Command, in 2019 that the station at Neuquen, which includes 35m and 13.5m diameter antennas, could have the ability to “track and target potentially the US, allies, and partner space activities.”
Issues relating to China’s ground stations have emerged elsewhere, with the 2020 SSC opting so that the contracts are not renewed to provide services to China via a station in Australia.
In July there was a diplomatic incident when India he protested the expected arrival of the Chinese Yuanwang 5 tracking spacecraft at a Sri Lankan port.
China uses Yuanwang’s ships to support launches, providing a key link for launch vehicles and spacecraft during their journey into orbit. The ships are necessary in part because of the lack of vital land infrastructure in other countries.
Earth stations, given their geographical distribution, are often subject to geopolitical tensions and concerns, and will be a point of contention in the future, particularly in the context of US-China relations.
China is thought to be developing intersatellite laser link capabilities to compensate for the lack of distributed ground segment infrastructure.