Oct 4, 2022 - World

China's space footprint in South America fuels security concerns

China's satellite ground stations in South America
Data: CSIS; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios

China has expanded its use of satellite ground stations in South America, leading multiple governments to express concern about Beijing's intentions, according to a new report.

Why it matters: China's space program has close but opaque ties to the country's military, fueling concerns that ostensibly civilian facilities could also be used for intelligence collection and surveillance, according to the report.

  • NASA's relationship with the U.S. military, by contrast, is close but transparent and clearly delineated.
  • "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 partner of choice in space for middle-income economies," the report released Tuesday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies states.

The big picture: Satellite ground stations allow nations and companies to communicate with their spacecraft, receiving information and sending commands to change positions or point in a specific direction.

  • The U.S., Russia and other nations operate ground stations and lease facilities in other countries.
  • But the lack of information about China's intentions for its stations has some concerned about what they're being used for.
  • Nations aim to scatter ground stations around the world — especially near the equator — because that leads to more robust satellite coverage.
  • But the proximity of the South American facilities in particular "to the United States has heightened fears that they can be used to spy on U.S. assets and intercept sensitive information," the report says.

Details: Several Chinese ground stations on the continent have come under scrutiny, the report states.

  • Espacio Lejano, a ground station in Argentina, is operated by a Chinese company owned by the People’s Liberation Army's Strategic Support Force.
  • The Argentinian government agreed to "not interfere or interrupt" any activities the Chinese side carries out there, the report states.

Between the lines: Geopolitics has always been involved in ground station placement, use and control.

  • China shut down its ground station in Kiribati in 2003 after the Pacific island nation established relations with Taiwan, according to the Lowy Institute.
  • China leases some facilities at the Santiago Satellite Station in Chile, which is operated by the Swedish Space Corporation. In 2019, the Swedish Defense Research Agency warned that China might be able to use its cooperation with the Swedish Space Corporation for military intelligence collection.
  • The Swedish Space Corporation has since said it won't renew contracts with China because the "geopolitical situation has changed" since they were originally signed, Reuters reported in 2020.

The bottom line: Terrestrial geopolitics can be just as important as space technology amid U.S.-China space competition.

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