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The risk of military use of the facility, fuelled by confidentiality clauses, fuels discussion in Argentina and suspicion in Washington.
China's arrival on the far side of the moon has put the spotlight on Chinese space developments. For this new degree program, Beijing has a tracking and observation station in Patagonia, the first on its own territory. In Argentina, there has been an extensive discussion about possible unacknowledged purposes of these facilities and alleged secret clauses negotiated at the time by the Kirchner administration. The government of Mauricio Macri guarantees the peaceful uses of the station, but the controversy has not ceased.
Chinese space station in the Argentinean province of Neuquén [Casa Rosada] ▲ Chinese space station in the Argentinean province of Neuquén [Casa Rosada].
article / Naomi Moreno Cosgrove
After years of gradual economic penetration, which has led it to become the leading commercial partner in several South American countries and a major lender and investor throughout the region, China's incursion into Latin America is no longer silent. The influence it has achieved in various nations - for example, it acquires almost 90% of Ecuador's oil exports and its credits have been essential for the subsistence of Venezuela and certain Brazilian public companies - means that China's activities are attracting special attention and its expansion is becoming increasingly clear.
China's growing power in Latin America is especially noted by the United States, although its own neglect of the region, sometimes presented as a consequence of its pivot towards Asia, has contributed to national governments' attempts to meet its needs by seeking other partners from reference letter.
Already suspicious of China's growing presence in the Americas, any activity in strategic fields such as security arouses particular suspicion in Washington. This has also been the case with moves made by Moscow, such as the siting of a station for the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (Globalnaya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema or GLONASS) in Managua (Nicaragua). The secrecy surrounding the operation of the facility has caused mistrust among the population itself, raising suspicions as to whether its use is intended solely to provide a higher quality of the Russian navigation system or whether there is the possibility of strategic exploitation by Russian aerospace defence forces.
Suspicions about the so-called Far Space Station, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) station in Patagonia, in the province of Neuquén, stem from entrance from the fact that it was negotiated at a time of particular disadvantage for Argentina, due to the financial weakness of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's government and its need for urgent credit. When Argentina was out of the international credit markets for having defaulted on nearly 100 billion dollars in bonds, the Asian country was a blessing for the then president.
In 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis, China sent representatives to Latin America to discuss an issue that had little to do with currency fluctuations: Beijing's space interests. This was due to China's desire to have a centre in the other hemisphere of the globe that could support its space activity, such as the expedition to the far side of the moon.
After months of negotiation under great secrecy, the Chinese government and the government of the province of Neuquén signed a agreement in November 2012, giving China the right to use the land - rent-free - for fifty years. The technical agreement was signed by the Chinese state-owned business Launching Security and Control Satellite (CLTC) and the Argentinean National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE).
Enormous in size, the larger of the two circular antennas - it is twelve stories high, weighs 450 tons and has a large diameter - and visible from a great distance due to its location in the middle of a desert plain, the station soon became an ideal target for controversy and suspicion. Fears that, in addition to its declared civilian use, it might also have a military purpose and be used to gather information by intercepting communications in that part of South America, fuelled the controversy.
After becoming Argentine president in 2015, Mauricio Macri entrusted the then foreign minister Susana Malcorra and the Argentine ambassador in Beijing, Diego Guelar, with the task of negotiating that agreement should include the specification that the station would only be used for peaceful purposes, which the Chinese accepted.
In spite of everything, the discussion about the risks and benefits of the Chinese base is still alive in Argentine public opinion. Politicians from civil service examination in Neuquén consider that "it is shameful to renounce sovereignty in your own country", as Congresswoman Betty Kreitman said when provincial legislators heard about project.
Beyond Argentina's borders, White House officials have called project a 'Trojan Horse', reflecting US concerns about the initiative, according to sources quoted by The New York Times. Even apart from any strategic dispute with the United States, some Latin American leaders have doubts and regrets about established ties with China, worrying that previous governments have subjected their countries to excessive dependence on the Asian power.
The main questioning of the Chinese base, then, has to do with its possible military use and the possible existence of secret clauses. The latter have been the main cause of international suspicion, as Macri himself came to validate the existence of these clauses when they became a weapon against the Kirchner government, and promised to reveal them when he became president, something he has not done. However, the Argentine space authorities themselves deny any section secrecy.
Perhaps the misunderstanding can be found in the fact that the contract signed between the Chinese CLTC and the Argentinean CONAE states that "both parties will maintain confidentiality regarding the technology, activities and monitoring, control and acquisition programmes of data". Although confidentiality regarding third parties in relation to technology is a common internship , in this case it contributes to public mistrust.
Given that the CLTC reports to the Chinese People's Army, it is difficult to deny that the data it obtains will come under the domain of the Defence hierarchy and may end up being put to military use, although not necessarily for military purposes. Experts also say that antennas and other equipment used to support space missions, similar to those the Chinese have in Patagonia, are likely to increase China's intelligence-gathering capabilities. "A giant antenna is like a huge hoover. It sucks up signals, information, all subject of things," Dean Cheng, an expert on China's national security policy, was quoted as saying in the NYT.