In an early October report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, highlights the growing concerns over China’s space footprint in South America. Its expanding ground stations in the region, the report Eyes on the Skies indicates, could be intercepting sensitive information.
“China has created a triangle of electronic and space intelligence bases in strategic locations [of South America],” Jorge Serrano, a security expert and member of the team of advisors to Peru’s Congressional Intelligence Commission, told Diálogo on October 25. “Beijing is a sort of incubator for anti-democratic governments in the region to undermine U.S. leadership through space technology.”
According to Serrano, ground stations form a key group of China’s space infrastructure, tracking tens of thousands of satellites and other objects in orbit, to fight wars in information-rich battlespaces.
CSIS stresses that Chinese space stations in the region, “could be used to spy on U.S. assets” as well as on foreign countries or to support counter-space operations.
While Chinese ground stations in South America are operated under the agreement that they only conduct civilian activities, some information seem to point to military use, the report indicates.
For instance, the Espacio Lejano station in Neuquén, Argentina, uses three bands to receive and collect data. While “all three bands can be used to transmit data related to scientific research and commercial communications […] the X- and Ka-bands are typically reserved for government use, which may include the transmission of sensitive information,” the report says.
Espacio Lejano and Santiago
The report warns that the Espacio Lejano station, run by China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, a sub-entity of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) — the People’s Liberation Army’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare force — has heightened suspicion that the Chinese military uses that station.
China attempted to counter these accusations by claiming that the station is reserved for peaceful, civilian missions. “Much of the technology used at ground stations is inherently dual use,” the report says. The site, however, is administered with no oversight from the Argentine government, and the contract stipulates that Argentina “not interfere or interrupt” activities.
Another Chinese facility the CSIS report highlights is the Santiago Satellite Station in Chile, operated by the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), which leases its facilities to foreign organizations, including NASA and the European Space Agency.
Beijing leased equipment and built space facilities at the Santiago station before it was sold to SSC in 2008. In 2019, China’s activities at the station raised questions after the Swedish Defense Research Agency found that China’s access to antennas at another SSC ground station could be used for military intelligence gathering and surveillance. “This is how China expands into Latin America,” Serrano said.
Following these findings, the SSC did not renew its contracts with China in 2020, Reuters reported. “Earth geopolitics is as important as space technology,” the news agency reported.
Spying allegations may lead China to lean more heavily on partners elsewhere in the region, such as Venezuela, which has two stations built with state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation, the report says.
The ground stations are just one piece of the puzzle, says CSIS. They work in conjunction with other facilities to support China’s space-to-ground network. For example, space tracking and surveillance ships can perform many of the same functions as ground stations, with the added benefit of mobility.
China’s space network in South America is part of a broader push by Beijing to establish itself as a leading global space power for middle-income economies. However, they run the risk of becoming entangled with opaque actors within China’s expansive space ecosystem, CSIS indicates.
Venezuela is a clear example of how China is positioning itself in space. Beijing deployed three satellites for the Venezuelan regime, Serrano said.
Regarding China’s advances in its space program “all I can say is that they are a serious challenge. They are a serious threat,” U.S. Space Force General David Thompson, vice chief of Space Operations, told U.S. magazine SpaceNews on October 25.
“Decision-makers in the region are not well informed about Chinese interference through space infrastructure. Right now, they think this has no effect. They believe this is part of Chinese technological advancement such as 5G technology,” Serrano said.
“As long as there is no communication strategy to alert societies of this interference, there is not going to be any change. China is going to continue to expand its influence and projection through space in South America and the rest of the continent,” Serrano concluded.