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China in South America: Impacts of the Space Plan

The agreement between Argentina and China on the installation of a Chinese space station in the town of Bajada del Agrio sparked controversies that persist to this day due to the secrecy of the negotiation.

The framework agreement between Argentina and China on the installation of a space station in the town of Bajada del Agrio (Neuquén province) was the result of the accords signed between 2012 and 2014 during the administration of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The construction of the station located in a 200-hectare property ceded by the province began to be built in 2014 and to operate in 2018. Since then, speculations started to be unleashed about the military or civilian use, controversies that persist until today, given the secrecy with which the conditions were negotiated and the almost impregnability to which the station is subjected to any national visitor as the area it covers is considered, by the agreement and endorsed by national laws as “Chinese sovereign territory”.

The reasons for the concession

The concessionary stance of the Argentine government at that time has its roots in several aspects. First, the ideological empathy between the ruling center-left Peronist faction (Kirchnerism) and China, in a context of predominance during the first decade of the 21st century of left and center-left governments in South America, which served the expansion of Chinese interests and influence in the region. Secondly, the dynamic bilateral economic relationship had positioned China as the second trading partner as a result of the high international prices of raw materials and the growing Chinese demand for soybeans, by-products, and agri-foods. Thirdly, the beginning of a cycle marked by the arrival of Chinese investments focused on infrastructure, transportation, energy, mining, and agribusiness sectors.

A fourth factor was Argentina’s financial needs given the external imbalance and the reluctance of international financial institutions to grant loans to the national government. Therefore, Argentina looked to Chinese state-owned banks for borrowing liquidity. Already in 2009, the country knocked on the door of the main Chinese banking entities, obtaining that year the first of the swaps granted to the country. Coincidentally, that year also began the first geological explorations in several sites in southern Argentina where the space station could be located and similar negotiations with the European Space Agency (ESA) to build a station with similar features in the town of Malargue, province of Mendoza. Finally, the European Deep Space Antenna 3 (DSA3) for deep space research entered service in 2013.

A fifth factor to be considered is that cooperation in the space field between China and Latin America registers important milestones, among the most outstanding are the bilateral program with Brazil that in 1995 gave the green light to the CBERS series of satellites still under development today; the cooperation with Venezuela for development; construction and launch of satellites of the Miranda series; and similar actions concerning Bolivia through the Tupak Atari-I program, consisting of a satellite controlled from the Amachuma Ground Station and orbiting some 22,300 miles over Latin America.

Of course, the context must be considered. Advances in the Chinese space plan required stations for tracking, controlling, and provision of telemetry information in different parts of the planet. In combination, the development of China’s  BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (in competition with Europe’s Galileo, Russia’s Glonass, and the U.S. GPS) required a similar ground support network to enable satellite launches, future lunar exploration missions and deep space navigation.

The advance of Chinese influence in the region

In this expansive context of Chinese influence in Latin America, the United States seemed to remain indifferent, bogged down in distant war scenarios such as Iraq and Afghanistan, without providing concrete solutions to contain China’s advance in the region. Thus, the “empty spaces” left by the Democratic administration and the inefficient American diplomacy focused on extra hemispheric areas of tension, favored the signing of agreements on the installation of space stations and bases dependent on the Chinese Space Program in South America. Particularly, the space station in Neuquén is a clear indicator of the U.S. shortcomings in its reading of the dynamic insertion of extra-regional actors in Latin America, such as Russia, China, and Iran.

Attempts to reverse this passive stance on the part of the United States in the face of suspicions of military use of the base led to the signing of an additional protocol, by both countries, reaffirming China’s commitment to the “peaceful use” of the facilities. This protocol was signed in 2018 under the administration of former President Macri. Since then, the space station has been surrounded by suspicions and speculations about its real peaceful or military use. And there are reasons for that.

Specifically, the agreements specify commitments to be fulfilled by agencies of both countries: in the Chinese case, the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), and in the case of Argentina the National Commission of Space Activities (CONAE). Although on the surface the agreement links its operational management to “civilian agencies”, in the Chinese case the CLTC operates under the directives of the General Armaments Department of the People’s Liberation Army (GAD-EPL) and its mission cannot be separated from the provision of services inherent to the Chinese national space plan, both in its civilian and military phase (space, electronic and cybernetic warfare), including the possibility of detecting, retaliating threats or guiding missiles through satellite contributions to targets in the U.S. territory, its allies in the Pacific and NATO partners.

Secondly, facilities such as the Chinese space station in Argentina and others that serve the Chinese space plan introduce the region in the middle of the Sino-U.S. strategic conflict. Besides, this escalates tensions between both contenders in our region by competing for influence at the level of Latin American countries, thus causing disturbances in regional governance, already aggravated by intra-state challenges.

A question cannot be avoided: Why does a country like Argentina, which insistently proclaims in all multilateral and bilateral forums and permanently appeals to the support of Latin American countries to sustain its legitimate sovereignty claims over the Malvinas Islands, cede sovereign spaces in its territory to extra-regional actors such as China for the development of activities over which it is incapable of exercising effective control?

Finally, it is difficult to believe that Argentina’s neighboring countries do not observe this situation with concern, since Argentina’s decision to enable this type of facility heightens tensions in our Southern Cone between China and the United States, forcing alignments in favor of one or the other power.

This text was originally published on REDCAEM‘s website.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Coordinador del Centro de Estudios sobre Asia del Pacífico e India (CEAPI) de la Univ. Nacional de Tres de Febrero (Argentina). Magíster por la Universidad de Pekín. Miembro de la Red China y América Latina: Enfoques Multidisciplinarios (REDCAEM).


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