In 2015, two years after beginning construction on the project and $300 million USD invested, the Congress of the Argentine Nation officially approved a Chinese space monitoring and tracking station in the Neuquén province. Five years later, we observe Argentina as financially reliant as ever to China, garnering a close bilateral relationship that U.S. defense officials are now warning against. The remote nature of this location provides little oversight for the Argentine government, and a whole lot of autonomy for the Chinese to conduct activities. U.S. defense and intelligence officials are questioning the true nature of this remote facility, the threat of telecommunications espionage, and the implications of a stronger Chinese presence in the Western Hemisphere.
Several miles from the nearest town, deep within the Patagonian desert, lies China’s greatest and perhaps most commonly overlooked geostrategic investment in Latin America yet. The Chinese have managed to construct a fully operational space tracking base of impressive size and understated capability. The 500-acre perimeter is completely fenced off to outsiders and satellite imagery shows what is confirmed to be a powerful 16-story tall, 35-meter diameter steerable parabolic antenna. The facility is operated by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), a unit belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Armaments Department devoted to telemetry, tracking, and command of various Chinese space missions.
Relevance to U.S. National Security
Part of why this space center is drawing attention from U.S. defense and intelligence officials is China’s choice of geographical location for the project and its strategic importance to future military operations. Located on the same longitudinal sector as the U.S. Eastern seaboard, Washington D.C. and the PLA’s space center in Argentina are equidistant from geostationary equatorial satellites. Many of the U.S. military’s telecommunications and reconnaissance satellites that service the Eastern seaboard are in geosynchronous orbit along this line of longitude, and this has served to fuel the U.S.’s worries of possible data collection and eavesdropping operations being conducted in the Patagonian desert.
United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) commander Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller testified before Congress in 2019 and highlighted China’s space station, pinpointing concern over potential targeting of space activities conducted by the U.S., Allies, and partners. Admiral Faller further noted the overarching implications of greater Chinese influence in Latin America for the United States.
China publicly justifies the use of this base, insisting that its sole purpose is peaceful, deep space exploration. The PLA’s official state-run press agency, Xinhua, emphasized the role that this station had in helping land the Chang’e-4 probe on the dark side of the moon in 2018. Chinese state media has also attempted to publicly downplay the antenna’s full capabilities, garnering more widespread skepticism about its true intended use.
Sino-Argentinian Relations: Dangerous Reliance?
Why would Argentina’s Congress agree to this infrastructure project knowing full well the predicament that it could create for them in the future, as the U.S.-China rivalry likely will encapsulate heightened competition for influence in the region? Argentina and China have grown increasingly intertwined bilaterally over the last decade. From 2007 to 2019, the Chinese government has given Argentina approximately $17.1 billion USD in the form of loans to support export and enterprise sector development, as well as various infrastructure and energy projects. The space station proposal was tacked onto a larger economic trade agreement that former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner finalized in her visit to Beijing in 2015 as part of a four-day summit with top Chinese government officials.
This reliance not only worries the U.S., but also legislators within the Argentine government. It is now evident that the lending practices conducted by the Chinese government abroad have the potential to severely damage domestic economic development for partner countries. This is a method of courting nations with mounting debt and instability—Argentina, which carries $100 billion in debt, including $44 billion owed to the International Monetary Fund, being but one example—and using the countries’ strategic assets and natural resource reserves as collateral. What we have in the case of Argentina is what appears to be a deal born out of indebtedness to the creditor, with temporary debt relief in exchange for some of Argentina’s sovereignty.
U.S. and China Engagements in Argentina
The bigger conversation at play here is China’s increased engagement with Latin America and what implications this will have for future U.S. interests in the region. Beijing has taken notice of the gradual U.S. withdrawal from and neglect of its southern allies. The “America First” foreign policy approach to international relations, and the reneging on international treaties and support of international organizations that have characterized the last few years opened up a new window of opportunity for China.
As the U.S. announced it would halt further payments to the World Health Organization in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, totaling a biennial payment of $893 million, the Chinese Foreign Ministry swept in and pledged to donate $2 billion to the organization over the span of two years, specifically in developing states. According to a tracker developed by researchers at the Wilson Center that compares COVID-19 assistance in Latin America donated by the U.S. and China, in Argentina alone, Chinese monetary donations total $3.7 million, along with thousands of units of medical equipment donated to offset the effect of COVID-19. The U.S.’s contributions in the country amount to health assistance totaling $300,000 for Migration and Refugee Assistance which will go towards aiding refugees and host communities with COVID-19, and a donation of 2,000,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine. As the U.S. draws back, China has taken it upon itself to seize this opportunity and showcase its ability to serve as a global leader.
And while it maintains a public “non-imperialist” stance on globalization, China’s increased presence in potential strategic chokepoints for the U.S. demonstrates quite the opposite. The Chinese military is positioning itself to project power globally: to be able to move rapidly around the world if it wishes to, without being hindered by host nations. China’s buildup of overseas military bases and infrastructure partnerships serves as a way to advance its hard power through thinly disguised economic means, and to ultimately be capable of attaining what the U.S. has achieved globally. The Chinese space tracking base in Patagonia is but the latest hegemonic power play that signals another great power is capable of flexing its might around the world, and even in space.
(Image source: China Manned Space Engineering Office)
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- China’s Heightened Space Presence in the Heart of Argentina’s Patagonian Desert - November 19, 2020