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China’s Satellite Diplomacy

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China’s Satellite Diplomacy

A look at China’s communications satellite sector gives a good indicator of which countries Beijing is courting.

China’s rise to become the second largest economy in the world has inevitably seen it invest projects at home and abroad that have the potential to challenge other states. One recent such development is the country’s beefing up of its communications satellites capabilities.

As part of this development, China has turned to countries across the globe, including in Europe, as potential partners. Belarus, for example, will be the first European country to sign a contract with the China Great Wall Industry Corporation this year.

But despite its keenness to expand its market share, China is choosing its partners carefully. Although China Great Wall is a commercial organization, it would be unthinkable for it to engage in business with private companies overseas not in line with the country’s strategic political and economic goals. And, since China Great Wall is the only country authorized by the government to launch satellites in China and overseas, it’s worth looking at the group’s work to get a clear picture of which countries are co-operating with China – in space and elsewhere.

In terms of aerospace partners, China has selected developing countries with abundant natural resources, including Nigeria and Venezuela. In 2007, China launched a satellite for Nigeria, its key oil partner (the satellite later failed, but a replacement is expected this year). In 2008, China built a communications satellite for Venezuela, one of its closest allies outside of the Asia-Pacific, and a country in which it has been investing in the oil, gas, and mining industries. Despite the satellite supposedly being used primarily for education purposes, Venezuela has already signed another contract for building an earth observation satellite.

But China’s role in the satellite business stretches beyond building and launching them – it also provides financial aid and supplementary training to partner countries. Indeed, it’s these additional services that make China an attractive potential satellite provider for developing countries. Bolivia, for example, signed a contract with China Great Wall only last year. The China Development Bank offered Bolivia a loan, while China Great Wall will provide additional training for Bolivian workers so they will not only be able to operate the satellite, but also learn how to build air stations. 

In Asia, meanwhile, China is keeping up with its good neighbour policy – and aerospace cooperation – with Pakistan, launching a satellite in August. Pakistan was China’s first aerospace partner in Asia, starting cooperation in 1990. And, should the United States continue to work closely with India, expect the strategic, military and economic bonds between China and Pakistan to grow further.

China’s communications satellites and aerospace assistance is clearly, then, a vital aspect of the country’s soft power, along with foreign aid and investment. And, while the United States and Russia still dominate the commercial satellite market, Beijing is still finding plenty of space to win friends and influence people.

Manca Sustarsic is a Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.