A division of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, dedicated to intercepting communications of other world powers, operates the scientific base in Patagonia.
The Argentine province of Neuquén is known for its lakes, volcanoes, ski slopes, and oil fields. Its latest feature, however, clashes with the Patagonian landscape: a 450-ton, 48-meter high by 35-meter wide antenna, operated by the Chinese military.
The huge antenna is part of the Far Space Station of the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), a division of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The complex was built on 200 hectares of land the Argentine government ceded China for 50 years. Negotiations led to an agreement with secret provisions signed in 2014 between the governments of former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Argentine Congress ratified the deal with China in 2015. Soon after, the Argentine Ministry of Planning denied there were secret provisions in the agreement. According to the ministry, “the station is exclusively for scientific and civic purposes, focused on monitoring, control, and data download of Chinese interplanetary exploration missions under the Chinese Lunar and Mars exploration programs.” However, the $50 million mega-project, which became fully operational in late 2017, stirs mixed feelings in Argentina.
Scientists of Argentina’s National Space Activities Commission (CONAE, in Spanish) will have access to the antenna about two hours and 40 minutes a day. Security analysts warn about risks of military use of the antenna, despite China’s pledge to use it for peaceful purposes to the government of Argentine President Mauricio Macri.
“It stands out that the agency in charge of the project is a military agency of the Chinese Army’s Directorate-General of Armaments. In other words, one cannot doubt the double purpose in this matter,” Juan Belikow, professor of International Relations at the University of Buenos Aires, told Diálogo. “The main problem is that there is no mechanism that guarantees Argentina or the international community any monitoring of exactly what goes on in that unit.”
According to Belikow, the issue is whether the station is part of a Chinese network similar to the global surveillance program known as the ECHELON Network, which uses similar technology to intercept communications. “They have the capacity. The agency that controls this antenna engages in these activities. And since there is no oversight, there’s no way to ensure that they’re not doing it [intercepting communications],” he said. “That is, the civil use promise is a verbal agreement, and we know the words of China in this sense were never very meaningful.”
According to Argentine international analyst Fabián Calle, Argentina is a benchmark in space matters, with an advanced technological industry in satellites and nuclear energy. “The explanation of scientists without ideological preferences is that the antenna, considering how it was mounted, is particularly useful to the Chinese space program,” Calle told Diálogo.
“No technician I spoke with depicted the antenna as a key element in China’s strategic ballistic missile program,” Calle said. “This doesn’t mean it won’t have some kind of dual use, or that it can’t obtain information useful to the Chinese military structure.”
BeiDou: The GPS made in China
Located in Bajada del Agrio, Neuquén, the interplanetary station is the first China built outside its territory. The station will allow for a lot more than prepare for a moon-landing mission. With this facility, Beijing seeks to level with other world powers and stop relying on GPS. The U.S. Department of Defense developed the navigation satellite system, operational since 1995, in the 1970s.
Since then, Europe developed the Galileo system, while Russia built its global navigation satellite system GLONASS. China currently develops BeiDou, also known as Compass.
To gain independence from the GPS system requires a significant geostationary presence, Belikow said. Moreover, installing the antenna in Neuquén province makes sense, because of Patagonia’s location on the other side of the globe from China.
“This gives the Chinese an opportunity to make up for the dark side of the planet they haven’t covered,” the analyst said. “But we know this is not enough. China probably knows that they need to triangulate [the signals], so they could install similar antennas in other parts of the world to make their system complete. We can expect other similar stations to be built in Africa or in another part of Asia.”
Belikow believes that six to 12 stations would be advantageous, yet three should allow for three dimensions. “There might be two stations in China, which means they would already have enough. Anyway, its accuracy is relatively low,” he said. “For now, the Chinese military will at least use the premises as a base for their satellite positioning system. We know that GPS is basically geared toward military use, then civil use. So it’s ridiculous to think that the Chinese military won’t use their own GPS system.”
Context of the accord
The long process to build the antenna started in 2012, when CLTC and CONAE signed a cooperation treaty. At the time, Argentina—still suffering from the aftermath of the 2008-2009 recession and without access to international markets with $100,000 million in sovereign bonds that defaulted in 2002—saw the Asian power as a solution to its economic problems.
Politics also factored in. “Kirchner’s government, especially from 2008 onward, made a very anti-American turn that sharpened during Cristina Fernández’s first term and even more so in the second term,” Calle said. “Therefore, the agreement signed [in 2014] is framed in this foreign policy of moving away from the United States, Europe, and the democratic countries on the Pacific coast and the Americas, and relying more on Russia and China.”
Argentina claimed that the antenna in Neuquén was very similar to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Deep Space Antenna 3 (DSA 3), inaugurated in 2012 in the Argentine city of Malargüe, Mendoza province. The result of another agreement with CONAE, DSA 3 completed the network of three ESA deep space stations, with antennas in New Norcia, Australia, and Cebreros, Spain.
“As such, the Chinese antenna was thought to be similar to the European Union’s [EU]. And if EU was there, including the British until Brexit, why wouldn’t we sign an agreement with China, who is the main buyer of Argentina’s soy and minerals and has important investments in ports?” Calle said.
The agreement between CLTC and CONAE raised suspicions from the beginning. Section 10, for instance, indicates that “both parties shall maintain confidentiality regarding technology, activities, and programs of data tracking, control, and acquisition.”
The subsequent bilateral agreement was also criticized for its secrecy, despite denials from the Kirchner administration. When Macri assumed the presidency, he asked China to include an amendment stating the station would be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.
Belikow, however, thinks the “peaceful purposes” amendment has a catch. “If they [the Chinese] say all their activities onsite are to defend China, and they consider these peaceful, they can frame spying on communications as peaceful use,” he said.
The Argentine government faces a delicate situation with access to the deal’s secret clauses, yet unable to reveal them. International agreements between two countries are legally binding documents that carry over even with a new administration. “Also, even if there were technical reasons that would warrant cancellation [of the agreement], Argentina is going through a very complex financial crisis. Exposing the treaty now would have an immediate effect on the Argentine economy,” Belikow said.
Calle doesn’t think Argentina will cross the line with China. “Macri’s government wants to move closer to the United States, Europe, Japan, Israel, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. But at the same time, Argentina is realistic and maintains a smooth economic, political, and commercial relationship with China,” he said. “It would be very difficult not to be involved with such an emerging power, which in turn needs the commodities we export.”
Calle highlighted Argentina’s recent agreement with the United States to conduct humanitarian activities with the armed forces, precisely in Neuquén. The province also counts with the strong presence of U.S. oil companies, which started exploring one of the largest unconventional reserves of gas and oil in Vaca Muerta. “This will create a strategic strong bond between Argentina and the United States in terms of energy. The government made the clear decision to give U.S companies an important place,” Calle said.
The 16-floor parabolic antenna that rises from the Patagonian desert is just one sign of the growing Chinese influence in Latin America. In 2015, Xi promised to invest $250 billion in the region by 2025. During a Beijing-meeting with leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC, in Spanish), Xi estimated trade between China and CELAC members to reach $500 billion in the next decade. Combined military exercises between China and South American countries, such as those conducted in Rio de Janeiro with the Brazilian Navy in 2013, also testify to China’s expanding reach in the region.
“China’s incursion in the region is indeed worrisome,” Belikow said. “We have to admit that the Chinese are fast learners. China entered Africa when the United States was focused on wars happening in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. Today, Africa is controlled by a Chinese incursion Africans resist, because it was very aggressive, with situations that bordered slavery,” he said.
The expert doesn’t rule out that China might use the Neuquén station’s structure—its main and supplemental antennas—to interfere with local communications. This could include spying on oil activities and intercepting messages from fishing and military vessels in the South Atlantic. “Don’t forget that nowadays information isn’t sent by cable, but by satellite. And no matter how encrypted it is, we know the Chinese aren’t bad at hacking communications.”
For Belikow, the secret clauses of the agreement and the secrecy around the station’s operations are a source of concern. For example, what does access of two hours 40 minutes a day consist of? Is the access physical or remote? “That’s not defined, either. I suspect they will give [Argentine scientists] remote access to information generated onsite. Because nowhere does it say—as far as we know—that the access will be physical,” he said.
“It would be more reasonable if we were given that timeframe to access the station at any time. Either way, from the moment we go through checkpoints until we get into the room, they can close programs they shouldn’t use, so there is no way to monitor. It’s a strange situation,” he said.