China’s Growing Ground Station Footprint in South America

A recent report details China’s increasing ground station presence in South America over the last decade. This presence has grown more concerning over the years with China’s ambition to grow into a leading space power, the large growth of yearly orbital launches and government statements that China’s space industry “serves the overall national strategy”. Part of this concern stems from China’s use of resources and facilities for civilian and military means. The separation between the two is a very blurry line, and indeed part of China’s “Military-Civil Fusion” strategy to dramatically upgrade the defense industry in China by leveraging and “fusing” together military and economic development. Further more People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force is involved in almost all Chinese space activities and even staffs its ground stations. This makes it very difficult to trust claims about a facility, and even if that facility is only performing scientific missions, it’s difficult to say if it is not also recording any transmissions it may happen to receive similarly to how the country monitors Internet use. One ground station in Argentina, Espacio Lejano, even has a contract between China and Argentina which says Argentina “not interfere or interrupt” activities carried out at the station.

A growing ground station presence in South America gives China more access time, which allows for longer downlinks periods, support for larger datasets, and the ability to service a larger number of satellites. This naturally allows for higher resolution and more numerous imaging data and other activities. Satellite imaging has proven to be of incredible importance for everything from national security and weather tracking to crop forecasting. Beyond the straightforward communication uses, ground stations also enable the tracking of space objects which makes it possible to increase space situational awareness of orbiting objects and their behaviors allowing China to better track other countries and commercial operations in space. China’s growing foothold in South America also reduces United States influence in the region and further opens the door for cooperation between South American countries and China in the future.

Taking it one step further, data based on UN records indicate the use of S, X and Ka bands at the Chinese ground stations. These bands are commonly used by military and commercial operations in the US, which makes the potential for interception and even communication with other countries satellites possible. The proximity of the stations to the United States allows for the possibility of receiving transmissions not directly intended for these ground stations. Although a lot of traffic is now encrypted, legacy systems are not and no encryption is perfect. One of the ground stations, Espacio Lejano, is also only 350 miles from the Santiago Satellite Station run by Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) which leases ground station use to international partners including NASA and ESA.

Speculation is high about the possibilities of these ground stations despite statements from Beijing insisting that it utilizes space for peaceful purposes, but the facts around the lack of transparency between the civil and military uses and the involvement of the PLA continue to fuel speculation and concern.

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