The Espacio Lejano Station, with its 35-meter-diameter antenna operated by the Chinese military in Argentine Patagonia, continues to arouse suspicion. Security and Defense experts insist that the structure, which sits on a 200-hectare compound in Neuquén province, leased to China for 50 years, could be dual use.
“Five years after the Chinese space base in Neuquén opened, we Argentines don’t know what activities Beijing officials are carrying out there,” Juan Belikow, professor of International Relations at the University of Buenos Aires, told Diálogo.
The ground station is run by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), a division of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, which role involves the coordinated employment of space, cyber, and electronic warfare to paralyze the enemy’s operational systems, the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs said in a report.
The implementation of Espacio Lejano was the result 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 agreement, according to Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), specifies that Argentina cannot “interfere [with] or interrupt the normal activities carried out in the Cooperation Agreement.”
“The secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding the agreement regulating its activities fuel suspicions of dual use and lack of clarity in management,” Belikow said. “This, added to the total absence of Argentine oversight on the activities of an extra-regional power in our territory, which is worrisome — especially at this time when the Asian giant’s belligerent attitude borders on war threats against Taiwan.”
In a statement made before the U.S. House Armed services Committee on March 8, 2023, U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, expressed concerns as to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) malign influence in Latin America. “The PRC is investing in critical infrastructure, including deep-water ports, cyber, and space facilities, which can have a potential dual use for malign commercial and military activities,” Gen. Richardson said.
Scientists from Argentina’s National Commission on Space Activities (CONAE) have access to 10 percent of the antenna time, Reuters reported, that is, 2 hours and 40 minutes. The remaining 90 percent is for the exclusive use of CLCT technicians. “The CLTC-CONAE-NEUQUEN Station provides telemetry support, tracking, and control of the missions of the Chinese Program for Moon Exploration and far space scientific research programs,” CONAE indicated on its website.
But experts warn that the antenna could be used for Chinese espionage operations. Among those, the Chinese spy balloon that the U.S. Air Force shot down as it flew over U.S. airspace. The Chinese spy balloon “was able to capture images and gather some intelligence signals from U.S. military sites,” CNN reported April 3 based on a source familiar with the matter.
“Concerning the incident, it’s worth asking whether the mysterious Chinese base […] has some role related to the fleet of Chinese balloons deployed around the world,” analyst Rubén M. Perina, an academic at George Washington and Georgetown universities and former Organization of American States official, wrote in an opinion piece for Argentine daily Clarín. “Due to the scarcity of information on the base, it’s difficult to have a plausible answer, but it’s certainly an issue to investigate and debate in relation to the Chinese presence in the country.”
“In addition, recent reports indicate that a similar base is planned for construction in [the Argentine province of] Santa Cruz and another naval base in [the city of] Ushuaia,” Perina added. “The latter would give China the capability to support its predatory fishing fleet, would facilitate the control of the Strait of Magellan and the inter-oceanic transit, a strategic location in a possible global conflict, as important as the Panama Canal, and would enable its military projection toward Antarctica.”
In a recent study, CSIS stated that the Neuquén station is the paradigm of “Chinese state capitalism.” In other words, commercial companies participate in China’s space program, “however […], the core of the sector remains closely linked to state agencies, SOEs [state-owned enterprises], and military organizations,” CSIS said.
“Internationally, analysts emphasize that the technology used in ground stations such as Espacio Lejano is inherently dual-use and could serve either military or civilian purposes,” the report indicated. China currently has three deep space ground stations: two within China (at Kashgar and Jiamusi) and the Neuquen station, CSIS said. “The Espacio Lejano Station thus fills a temporal gap in China’s global coverage. Adding a ground station on the other side of the globe allows China to improve the frequency of communication with its satellites,” CSIS said.
Since ground stations communicate more easily with satellites as they pass over them, the additional deep space ground station in Neuquén gives China more continuous access to them, the think tank said. “Notably, ground stations can also gather information from other satellites that pass overhead, not just Chinese ones. Thus, more deep space ground stations allow for faster and more frequent gathering of data, which can help China understand the behavior of other countries’ satellites,” the study concluded.