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Foreign Policy

China in Patagonia…and Space

Apr 27 , 2017
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School
China’s space program has been strengthened by the construction of a satellite tracking station toward the southern tip of Argentina. It is the largest and best-equipped Chinese overseas base of its kind, and is finally operational this month. It promises to bolster ambitious Chinese plans to explore the moon and planets. 


The satellite tracking and space telemetry station is situated deep in the Patagonian region of Argentina, on a direct line with Washington, D. C. China’s spokesmen say that the tracking station has no military uses, but it nevertheless gives China an excellent opportunity to observe and track the satellites that other nations place, and will in future place, in orbits that sit over the Western Hemisphere.
China has no comparable facilities in South America, or in the southern hemisphere. Indeed, this large base is the first of such a scale outside China. It contains steerable parabolic antennas 13.5 and 35 meters in diameter, computer and engineering facilities, lodgings for staff, and a $10 million bespoke electric power plant.  Another Chinese signals intelligence base is located in Bejucal, Cuba, within 1000 miles of the U. S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. That facility also has steerable parabolic antennas.
Elsewhere, China has ground tracking stations to support its space program in Namibia, Pakistan, and Kenya. But those facilities are much more limited than the new one in Patagonia. China also tracks satellites from at least five ships at sea.  (The United States controls at least sixteen ground satellite tracking stations across the globe.)
China negotiated permission for the facility in 2013 and 2014, when President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was in power. It leased the land for fifty years, tax free. Argentinian parliamentary approval came in 2015, before Kirchner was succeeded by Mauricio Macri. But satellite photography shows that the base was being built in 2013.
Argentinians have complained about the facility and widely believe that secret monies may have passed to secure approval for the facility. President Macri received assurances from China that the base would not have military uses. Even so, local officials continued to complain that Argentina had given away sovereign rights, for little gain. Local officials also objected to China’s refusal to employ Argentinians in its construction and management. The tracking station is entirely controlled and staffed by a Chinese military detachment.
China says that the purpose of the ground station in Argentina is solely to support deep space exploration and a lunar mission that China may mount later this year. An official of the China Launch and Satellite Tracking Control General (CLTC) has said that the station’s parabolic antennas could not be rotated swiftly, and therefore could not have military uses. Yet signals intelligence everywhere employs slow maneuvering antennas to gather information from the skies, and the two antennas installed in Argentina are easily and widely steerable. CLTC is a unit of the General Armaments Department of the China’s People’s Liberation Army.
In 2015, an Argentinian official representative declared that the base in Patagonia could have dual use. In addition to its tracking of Chinese lunar missions, it would, he said, have the capacity to “interfere with communications, electronic networks, and electromagnetic systems. It also could receive information about the launching of missiles, the movement of drones, and other aspects of military competition.
Non-Chinese experts confirm that the two antennas can be used to monitor geostationary satellites, in addition to deep space sensing. Moreover, with the parabolic antennas working in tandem, such a facility could precisely lock onto satellites and their signals
China presumably chose a site in remote Patagonia for the facility because in sits directly south of Washington and therefore is in line with geostationary satellites servicing the American east coast.
The facility is located near Bajada del Agrio in the Quintuco region of Neuquen Province. Bajadsa del Agrio is roughly on a latitude comparable to Concepion in Chile and Bahia Blanca in Argentina.
The base was constructed rapidly by the China Harbor Engineering Company, a subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Company. That last company has been building airfields and bases on disputed islands and islets in the South China Sea.
Satellite images show a fenced enclosure about 210 hectares in area. When Argentinian journalists attempted to visit the base, local guards said that only the Chinese could give permission. The mayor of Neuquen City was refused entry to what he worried was “Chinese land on Argentina’s territory.”
There is a smaller and less well-equipped European Space Agency facility about 600 miles north of the Chinese base, in Mendoza Province of Argentina. But that operation is run by Argentinians on behalf of the European agency. It was helpful in guiding comet probing missions.
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