Sun, Feb 03, 2019 - Page 7 News List

China’s military-run space station in Argentina is a ‘black box’

A Chinese space station in Patagonia is shrouded in secrecy and has the US worrying about a Beijing strategy to ‘militarize’ space

By Cassandra Garrison  /  Reuters, LAS LAJAS, Argentina

Illustration: Louise Ting

When China built a military-run space station in Argentina’s Patagonian region, it promised to include a visitor center to explain the purpose of its powerful 16-story antenna.

The center is now built — behind the nearly 3m barbed-wire fence that surrounds the entire space station compound. Visits are by appointment only.

Shrouded in secrecy, the compound has stirred unease among local residents, fueled conspiracy theories and sparked concerns in US President Donald Trump’s administration about its true purpose, according to interviews with dozens of residents, current and former Argentine government officials, US officials, satellite and astronomy specialists, and legal experts.

The station’s stated aim is peaceful space observation and exploration, and it played a key role last month in China’s landing of a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon, Chinese media reported.

However, the remote 200-hectare compound operates with little oversight by the Argentine authorities, according to hundreds of pages of Argentine government documents reviewed by international law experts.

Argentina has no physical oversight of the station’s operations, former Argentine minister of foreign affairs Susanna Malcorra said in an interview.

She in 2016 revised the space station deal with China to include a stipulation that it be used for civilian purposes only.

The agreement obliges China to inform Argentina of its activities at the station, but provides no enforcement mechanism for authorities to ensure that it is not being used for military purposes, the international law experts said.

“It really doesn’t matter what it says in the contract or in the agreement,” said Juan Uriburu, an Argentine lawyer who worked on two major Argentina-China joint ventures. “How do you make sure that they play by the rules?”

“I would say that, given that one of the actors involved in the agreements reports directly to the Chinese military, it is at least intriguing to see that the Argentine government did not deal with this issue with greater specificity,” he said.

China’s space program is run by its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Patagonian station is managed by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, which reports to the PLA’s Strategic Support Force.

Beijing has said that its space program is for peaceful purposes and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the Argentine station is for civilian use only, adding that the station was open to the public and media.

“The suspicions of some individuals have ulterior motives,” the ministry said.

Asked how it ensures the station is not used for military purposes, Argentina’s space agency, CONAE, said the agreement between the two countries stated their commitment to “peaceful use” of the project.

It said radio emissions from the station were also monitored, but radio astronomy experts said that the Chinese could easily hide illicit data in these transmissions or add encrypted channels to the frequencies agreed upon with Argentina.

CONAE also said that it had no staff permanently based at the station, but that they made “periodic” trips there.

The US has long been worried about what it sees as China’s strategy to “militarize” space, according to one US official, who added that there was reason to be skeptical of Beijing’s insistence that the Argentine base was strictly for exploration.

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