The worry and alarm over the space station that China will construct in Neuquen has spread beyond Argentina’s borders. The opposition’s legislators in Congress weren’t the only ones to object to this sealed agreement between Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping over the possible military use of the station. Concern about this project also discreetly reached part of the United States and the European Union.
A few days before last Feb. 25 when the Chamber of Deputies sanctioned the agreement package with China, which included the construction and use of a space station for 50 years in Neuquen, those responsible for the U.S. embassy’s regional defense in Buenos Aires let their worry about the Chinese project be known to several active and retired officials in the Armed Forces.
But they weren’t the only ones. According to several qualified diplomatic sources that wrote to the nation, numerous members of the European Union expressed fear over the possible military use of this satellite situated on a plot of 494 acres in the locality of Bajada del Agrio which is monitored by personnel from Beijing.
Their alarm was conveyed to several offices in the chancellor’s office and the Casa Rosada; it included certain uneasiness on behalf of the EU about explanations publicly given by the government to justify this agreement with China.
Even the European Union’s delegation in Argentina had to explain to a number of government officials that this Chinese satellite base has nothing to do with the EU station located in the Mendoza province in Malargüe as was outlined by several legislators of the party in power as they defended the agreement in congress. The EU was so concerned that they clarified the station in Malargüe does not have military purposes, since the European Space Agency that is in charge of the station in Mendoza is run by civilians and not by the military.
The agreement that President Kirchner signed with Xi Jinping regarding the Neuquen station stipulates that the plant be controlled by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General. But there’s just one catch: That entity is below the General Armament Department and the Central Military Commission of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
According to what three sources from the armed forces explained to the nation, the military from the American Embassy wanted to know exactly what the agreement entailed, and wanted to evaluate whether or not the Chinese satellite in Neuquen would have a dual purpose — both military and civil. It seems that the Argentine military only responded with what has already been made public, that the Ministry of Defense was never consulted about signing this agreement with Beijing. So the military parroted what the former cabinet chief as well as the congressmen and senators maintained: That the project has peaceful ends and that it will be “similar” to what the EU built in 2012 in Mendoza.
The U.S. Embassy in Argentina refused to comment on the topic when La Nacion asked the embassy about it.
What’s more, it is known that last year a conservative document was published in American Diplomacy, written by researchers Ian Easton and Mark Stokes working with the Project 2049 Institute* headquartered in Virginia, in which they raise the alarm about the construction of Chinese space research stations in some countries and their possible military use. In the paper, the academics claimed that “Studies have been conducted on employing space sensors for early-warning and missile defense operations” by Beijing.** The think tank that commissioned the study demonstrated the repercussions of Chinese electronic intelligence upon the U.S. naval and air forces. There are more technical details in their work that show Washington’s military and intellectual sectors’ worry about projects like the ones that Argentina backs in Neuquen.
The suspicions about the military use of the Neuquen station take on new relevance if we take into account the fact that China has succeeded Germany in becoming the world’s third largest exporter of weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The institute holds that China’s participation in the global weapon market increased 143 percent from 2010 to 2014. In fact, the institute also affirms that Argentina has purchased 14 to 20 FC-1 / F-17 Thunder fighter planes produced by the Chinese business, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group.
Furthermore, European diplomats spoke to several Argentine public officials about the basis for their unease. They stressed that Argentina’s agreement with the EU was not made directly with the European Union, as the government said, but rather with the European Space Agency, an entity which is institutionally independent of the European Union.
The EU also suggested that the covenant they signed with Argentina is “transparent, spells out all the fine details, and is public domain,” according to an explanation by a European diplomat.**
This explanation is not unfounded if the agreement between President Kirchner and Xi Jinping is taken into account, which includes two attachments that are secret and that are only known to China’s CLTC and Argentina’s National Space Activities Commission, which will have no more than 2 hours, 40 minutes of access to the Chinese station per day. What’s more, it was clarified that the European agency that manages the space station in Malargüe only has civilians working for it.
Only days after arriving in the country, the Chinese ambassador to Argentina, Yang Wanming, denied before the nation that the space station that will be built in Neuquen will have a military purpose. “It is a peaceful and technological project to explore outer space. This has nothing to do with a military project,” he maintained.
The Chinese space station in Neuquen will begin operating in 2016. It is stipulated that Beijing will have a tax-free period of 50 years. But these details are not what most worries foreign diplomats.
An Ambitious Project
The space station that China is building in Neuquen will cost approximately $300 million, and the 494-acre base will be monitored by Chinese personnel. Moreover, the station will be run by the Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, which is under the China’s Military Department and the People’s Liberation Army.
*Editor’s Note: The Project 2049 Institute publishes research papers, policy briefs, monographs and other materials on critical security issues in Asia.