China’s growing space program in Latin America concerns U.S. Pentagon

EL ALTO, Bolivia — On a plateau 13,000 ft above sea degree within the Bolivian Andes, llama herders and Indigenous farmers share the sparse panorama with an uncommon neighbor: a towering cluster of Chinese language-built satellite tv for pc dishes.

The Amachuma Floor Station exchanges information 24 hours a day with Bolivia’s solely state-owned satellite tv for pc, Tupac Katari I, which orbits some 22,300 miles above Latin America. The distant floor station has one other, largely invisible, use: It permits Beijing to surveil skies 10,000 miles from China, based on officers from the Bolivian area company and Chinese language scientists and firm officers accustomed to this system.

The Pentagon is more and more involved that China’s rising community of services in Latin America and Antarctica for its civilian area and satellite tv for pc packages has protection capabilities. U.S. officers say the bottom stations — which permit international locations to keep up uninterrupted communication with satellites and different area automobiles — have the potential to broaden Beijing’s international army surveillance community within the southern hemisphere and areas near the USA.

China already has over 700 satellites in orbit, with plans to broaden that quantity exponentially within the coming years a undertaking that requires a world constellation of terrestrial services to trace and talk with them as they go over totally different elements of the planet.

Aside from two floor stations in Bolivia, opened in 2013, China constructed area services in Venezuela in 2008, Peru in 2015, Argentina in 2016 and has a minimum of two stations below development in Antarctica. It has extra entry to services in Brazil and Chile by means of analysis partnerships. This infrastructure fills a key geographical hole for Beijing’s area program, permitting China to trace and talk with its rising fleet of satellites and area automobiles whereas additionally probably surveilling different state’s belongings as they go over the southern hemisphere.

Floor stations are a essential piece of terrestrial area infrastructure, performing what known as telemetry, monitoring and command (TT&C) features, which means they can monitor or talk with the huge net of satellites and area automobiles that fill the sky. They’re key to delivering business companies, together with web connectivity, Earth imaging and the monitoring of civilian area analysis automobiles.

College students take a look at a mannequin of a Venezuelan communication satellite tv for pc throughout a visit to the Bolivian Area Company, the nation’s nationwide area company, in La Paz Division, Bolivia.

Floor stations can even play an vital function in nationwide safety. They facilitate army communications, monitor missile launches, surveil the area belongings of different international locations and might play a task in jamming, interfering with or probably destroying enemy satellites. The significance of satellite tv for pc networks in conflict has been underscored because the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the place communication satellites and terminals made by Starlink, the satellite tv for pc web firm operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have become a lifeline for Ukrainian forces.

China’s worldwide area services are nonetheless far outnumbered by U.S. stations, however the Latin American and Antarctic websites are only one section in a rising Chinese language international area infrastructure, solid principally in international locations with shut diplomatic ties to Beijing.

The Chinese language state agency behind Bolivia’s floor stations has, since 2008, constructed comparable tasks in Laos, Pakistan, Nigeria and Belarus, whereas different space-tracking services linked to the Individuals’s Liberation Military embody websites in Namibia and Kenya. China additionally maintains a fleet of cell area assist ships that, based on the Pentagon, are used to trace satellite tv for pc and ICBM launches.

This summer season, Chinese language state media mentioned nationwide information had been damaged when 67 satellites were launched inside simply 9 days in June. Earlier this 12 months, Chinese language army researchers mentioned work has begun on launching a mega-constellation of just about 13,000 low-earth orbit satellites, designed to compete with Starlink, which has its personal international constellation of floor stations.

“Their on-orbit armada of satellites can monitor us, can sense us, can see us … and might now maintain U.S. forces in danger in a approach we now have by no means understood or needed to face so far,” mentioned Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Gagnon, deputy chief of area operations for intelligence on the U.S. Area Drive, talking on the Air and Area Forces Affiliation Warfare symposium in March.

Gagnon mentioned that round half of China’s 700 satellites are used for distant sensing and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions, which means they’re outfitted to assemble delicate safety information.

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Ties to Chinese language army

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A mannequin prototype of Bolivia’s solely state-owned satellite tv for pc, Tupac Katari I, stands is displayed on the Bolivian Area Company. The satellite tv for pc was funded by a $250 million China Growth Financial institution mortgage.

On the time of its launch in 2013, the Tupac Katari I satellite tv for pc — named after a famed Bolivian revolutionary and funded by a $250 million China Growth Financial institution mortgage — represented one thing unthinkable to many Bolivians: the status of a nationwide area program, connectivity for the nation’s distant rural communities and a specialised army communications bandwidth.

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However virtually 10 years later, the promise of Bolivia’s revolutionary leap into area has light. Whereas Tupac Katari I has pushed extra connectivity in distant areas, plans to make use of the undertaking as a launchpad for the nation’s personal area trade have been scuttled by financial woes. A lot of the Chinese language mortgage stays excellent, with Tupac Katari I set to be retired right into a deep area graveyard inside 5 years.

The bottom stations have proved helpful as one in all a number of Latin American services accessible to China.

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Satellite tv for pc monitoring screens are displayed on the Bolivian Area Company.

“We’ve got rented it to the Chinese language to regulate the launch of [their] different satellites,” mentioned Iván Zambrana, director normal of Agencia Boliviana Espacial, the Bolivian area company, talking from the expansive glass-fronted constructing that overlooks the dishes — a glitzy perk of the Chinese language mortgage package deal.

Zambrana mentioned that below the contracts, Chinese language technicians journey to Bolivia about every year to entry the bottom, normally by way of a secondary floor station that communicates with Amachuma from the Bolivian metropolis of Santa Cruz. From there, they can set up expertise and monitor different belongings in area. One Chinese language technician mentioned Beijing is ready to remotely entry a variety of the abroad stations, together with these in Bolivia and Venezuela. “These agreements had been accomplished with the permission of companion governments,” mentioned the technician who, like others, spoke on the situation of anonymity to debate delicate issues.

Beijing just isn’t alone in constructing area TT&C services overseas, most of which have respectable civilian makes use of, and the nation maintains its floor stations in Latin America and Antarctica are used completely for peaceable functions. What units China’s worldwide business area program aside is its shut hyperlinks to the army. The contractors behind China’s area expertise — together with most of the Latin American and Antarctic services — are additionally the main state-owned powerhouses behind the missile improvement, cyberwarfare and counter area protection packages of the Individuals’s Liberation Military.

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Iván Zambrana, director normal of Agencia Boliviana Espacial, the Bolivian area company.

“All the [Chinese] businesses which are concerned within the data and the information assortment at these locations are tied again in in some way to the Chinese language authorities or to the Chinese language army,” mentioned Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow on the Washington-based Heart for Strategic and Worldwide Research, who has studied the growth of Chinese language floor stations in Latin America and Antarctica.

“The way in which to consider it’s, if these websites are or may gather information that’s helpful to the PLA, and the PLA needs it, it’s going to get it,” he mentioned.

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‘A safety danger’

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Police and emergency-response companies in Bolivia’s cities are outfitted with Chinese language-made surveillance programs by means of a undertaking launched in 2019.

Beijing has set a objective to turn out to be a world-leading area energy by 2045 — a program that lays out bold targets in nationwide safety in addition to civilian tasks, together with a plan to ship crewed spacecraft to the moon by 2030 and develop nuclear-powered area shuttles by 2040. Spearheading Beijing’s race towards area supremacy are a cluster of state-owned corporations which are both direct items of the PLA or army contractors. Others are non-public or state enterprises which are a part of Beijing’s military-civil fusion program, a nationwide strategic coverage drive by the Chinese language Communist Social gathering to counterpoint the army with civilian-developed applied sciences.

The expertise behind China’s area program — together with the services in Latin America and Antarctica — is dominated by two state-owned enterprises: the China Aerospace Science and Expertise Corp. (CASC) and China Aerospace Science and Trade Corp. (CASIC). Each corporations originated within the PLA, earlier than being spun off into main state-owned enterprises, and stay prime suppliers to the nation’s army. CASC, based on firm paperwork, is the nation’s sole producer of intercontinental nuclear missiles, in addition to a prime contractor of army area expertise, drones and launch programs.

CASIC describes itself because the “spine” of China’s aerospace trade, overseeing the event of cruise and ballistic missiles amongst an enormous vary of different tasks. “CASIC takes ‘empowering the army’ as its first obligation and ‘constructing China into an area energy’ as its personal accountability,” based on a description on its web site.

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A lady walks by a retailer in El Alto promoting Tup4K antennas. With the Tup4K satellite tv for pc package, it’s potential to obtain digital radio and TV alerts broadcast from the Tupac Katari satellite tv for pc.

Towering over a distant plain in Patagonia, Argentina, is the most important Chinese language-made area facility in Latin America. A 35-meter-wide satellite tv for pc dish on the Espacio Lejano Floor Station is operated by the PLA’s Strategic Help Drive (SSF), based on a 2023 Pentagon report and two individuals who work for a Chinese language-state area group and are accustomed to the undertaking’s operation. The SSF is the army unit that oversees the PLA’s area, cyber and digital warfare packages.

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Underneath a contract signed between the 2 international locations, Argentina’s authorities agreed to not “intervene or interrupt” China’s actions on the ground-station facility.

In Venezuela, a Chinese language state-owned firm launched a satellite tv for pc and constructed two floor stations — the most important of which is situated inside Venezuela’s Capitán Manuel Ríos Airbase, a army airport within the nation’s central north. The corporate, China Nice Wall Trade Corp. (CGWIC), is the only entity approved to offer business satellite tv for pc expertise to worldwide companions and is an entirely owned subsidiary of CASC.

The CGWIC additionally constructed the bottom station in Bolivia and is the group that liaises with Bolivia’s area company to conduct tasks from its Andean base station.

WearValleyMercury China’s growing space program in Latin America concerns U.S. Pentagon <br />WEARVALLEYMERCURY
Aymara girl Lucia Aruquipa walks towards her home, outfitted with a Tup4K antenna, in Patamanta, a small, rural neighborhood in Bolivia.

Virtually 6,200 miles south, a floor station antenna below development at China’s Zhongshan base in Antarctica is being constructed by CASIC, based on Chinese language state media. One other Chinese language floor station below development on the distant Antarctic outcrop of Inexpressible Island has drawn considerations from the Pentagon that it may “present the PLA with higher surveillance capabilities … properly positioned to gather alerts intelligence over Australia and New Zealand,” based on the Protection Division report launched final month on army threats posed by China.

Map displaying areas of Inexpressible Island and Zhongshan base

The Chinese language technician who beforehand labored as a contractor on abroad tasks for the CGWIC informed The Washington Put up that the traces between civilian and army are fluid within the state-owned agency and in China’s broader worldwide area partnerships.

“They’re the identical, the identical workers … army and civilian, in China there isn’t a distinction, that is the situation of our nation’s area trade,” mentioned the particular person. “America, Western international locations, additionally do any such work in secret circumstances. Why not China?”

The CGWIC didn’t reply to a request for remark. CASC and CASIC didn’t reply to emails and calls to their Beijing headquarters.

A spokesman for the Chinese language Embassy in Washington informed The Put up that he couldn’t touch upon particular nation partnerships, however mentioned Beijing is “for peaceable use of outer area.”

Spokesman Liu Pengyu mentioned China is towards the “weaponization” of area expertise and doesn’t assist an “arms race” in outer area. “We promote an outer area neighborhood with shared future for mankind,” he mentioned. Liu pointed to China’s cooperation with Brazil, utilizing satellites to surveil earth sources, climate and different civilian functions as proof of China’s profitable function within the area’s area trade.

The Chinese language Embassy in Bolivia didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Requested in regards to the potential for China to make use of the CGWIC base for army functions, Zambrana, director of the Bolivian area company, dismissed the thought. “Go search for your self,” he mentioned, gesturing towards the close by Amachuma Floor Station. “You received’t see any army.”

Rogelio Mayta, who spoke to The Put up whereas serving as overseas minister in October, a task he stepped down from final week, mentioned that Bolivia is alert to the potential of satellite tv for pc expertise being militarized, however feels it’s unavoidable, and that the advantages to Bolivians outweigh these considerations. “We’ve got to reside with that potential actuality and the aerospace capabilities of the nice powers,” he mentioned. “We all know that it will possibly indicate a safety danger.”

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Filling gaps the place U.S. was absent

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Pedestrians stroll by surveillance cameras that monitor downtown La Paz.

Beijing’s increasing area presence in Latin America has been carved alongside diplomatic traces, discovering success in international locations the place relations with the USA and its allies have faltered.

As discussions on the formation of Bolivia’s area company had been underway in 2009, the nation’s relations with the USA had been at a disaster level.

President Evo Morales leveled sweeping accusations that the CIA was plotting towards his authorities. Months earlier, he had expelled the U.S. ambassador and officers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, accusing them of conspiracy, expenses the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia known as “absurd.”

On the time, Beijing was not deeply engaged within the nation, which was rising from an economically turbulent decade, however over the subsequent 12 years it might turn out to be the nation’s prime worldwide financier and infrastructure collaborator. In 2017, Bolivia’s vp mentioned the nation would receive a $7 billion credit line from Beijing for infrastructure tasks, double the nation’s exterior debt on the time. This 12 months, amid a extreme scarcity of U.S. {dollars}, Bolivia started buying and selling in China’s forex, the yuan.

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With the loans got here expanded entry for Chinese language corporations to the nation’s huge pure sources, together with lithium, and Bolivia obtained different superior expertise. In 2019, for example, Bolivia launched the Bol-110 undertaking, equipping police and emergency-response companies within the nation’s cities with Chinese language-made surveillance programs.

When Beijing floated the $250 million mortgage for the Tupac Katari I satellite tv for pc undertaking, Bolivian area company officers mentioned the Chinese language proposal was not solely extra complete than different bids, but in addition represented a welcome different from what they perceived to be patronizing remedy from American and European area suppliers who had been in touch with Bolivia on the time.

“There was an air of superiority in Individuals and Europeans when coping with Bolivia,” mentioned Zambrana, who has headed the area company since its inception in 2010, solely stepping away from the function when an interim authorities took energy for a 12 months following a political disaster in 2019.

WearValleyMercury China’s growing space program in Latin America concerns U.S. Pentagon <br />WEARVALLEYMERCURY
Police in La Paz monitor the general public with Chinese language-built cameras in a video surveillance room.

Inside 10 months of the founding of the Bolivian area company, the federal government signed a contract with the CGWIC for a package deal that included two floor stations and the Tupac Katari I satellite tv for pc. As a part of the settlement, Bolivia despatched 64 scientists to check satellite tv for pc expertise at Beihang College, China’s prime civilian and army aerospace college. They then continued their coaching alongside Chinese language engineers on the newly constructed floor stations again in Bolivia.

“Basically, there’s been a recognition during the last 10 years that the U.S. wanted to up its gentle energy recreation to counter a few of this,” mentioned Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Safe World Basis and an knowledgeable in area safety. “What China was doing was filling within the gaps the place the U.S. was not centered.”

Bolivian officers keep they aren’t wedded to China as their sole area contractor and are actively contemplating different international locations for future tasks. They do, nevertheless, resent the concept they might be compelled to decide on between the West and China.

“We don’t wish to be informed that we’re with God or with the satan,” mentioned Mayta, the previous overseas minister. “That’s, we consider that we are able to have a place open to everybody,” he mentioned.

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Supremacy in area applied sciences

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College students pet a stray canine whereas visiting the Bolivian Area Company on the Amachuma Floor Station amid a cluster of Chinese language-made satellite tv for pc dishes.

In Bolivia, whereas relations stay robust with China, a lot of the hype across the authentic area collaboration has light. Plans for a second, Chinese language funded, Earth-imaging satellite tv for pc introduced by the Morales authorities in 2017 and lauded for its potential to seize detailed information on the nation’s land use, have been shelved indefinitely — deemed too expensive.

Elsewhere in Latin America, different international locations have continued to purchase right into a extra bold imaginative and prescient of a China-led future in area. Venezuela — since its preliminary pact with the CGWIC in 2008 — has moved forward with two additional Chinese language satellites. In September, it turned the primary Latin American nation to formally be part of the China-led Worldwide Lunar Analysis Station undertaking.

Regardless of the nation’s cratering financial system, President Nicolás Maduro vowed throughout a September state go to to Beijing that he would ship “the primary Venezuelan man or girl to the moon” with the assistance of China.

Amongst Pentagon paperwork leaked on the Discord chat platform within the spring was one which contained a stark assessment of China’s satellite tv for pc capabilities within the southern hemisphere. It mentioned the satellites had been refined past earlier estimates, and Beijing already holds the power to trace, jam or destroy U.S. and allied satellites that will gather essential intelligence within the Indo-Pacific within the occasion of conflict in Taiwan.

“The PRC’s total army technique to ascertain and keep data dominance in a battle drives Beijing’s improvement of area,” it mentioned.

About this story

Story by Cate Cadell. Pictures by Marcelo Perez del Carpio. Story enhancing by Peter Finn. Undertaking enhancing by Courtney Kan. Picture enhancing by Jennifer Samuel. Design and improvement by Kat Rudell-Brooks and Yutao Chen. Maps by Cate Brown and Laris Karklis. Design enhancing by Joe Moore. Copy enhancing by Susan Doyle.

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