The Patagonian Enigma: China’s Deep Space Station in Argentina 

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The Patagonian Enigma: China’s Deep Space Station in Argentina 

New Argentine President Javier Milei may have railed against China but he’s taken a pragmatic track since. Still, the new government should look closely at China’s Argentine space station.

The Patagonian Enigma: China’s Deep Space Station in Argentina 
Credit: Depositphotos

Javier Milei’s presidential victory in Argentina may be a turning point in the country’s relations with China. Initially, Milei was critical of China and skeptical of international trade blocs. However, after his election, he has adopted a more pragmatic stance given Argentina’s economic ties with China.

Nonetheless, it remains crucial for Milei’s government to actively reevaluate and consider terminating the 2014 deep space station agreement with Beijing, ensuring that national interests are prioritized.

The geopolitical shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific has provided China with an opportunity to extend its influence in the Southern Cone, challenging U.S. dominance in the Western hemisphere. China has become a key strategic partner for Brazil and a major trade partner for Argentina. It’s noteworthy that Argentina only established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1972. At that time, China’s role on the global stage was largely perceived as a counterweight to Soviet influence. This diplomatic move also occurred under the military government of General Agustín Lanusse in Argentina, which was actively seeking to reduce its reliance on the United States.

China’s pursuit of minerals, hydrocarbons, and food resources in Latin America and Africa is a strategic move to fuel its industrial growth. In a hypothetical global conflict involving the United States, these countries, including Argentina, would be key suppliers of essential raw materials for China’s survival. Consequently, China has established a network of trade and investment treaties in those regions.

However, these relationships are notably imbalanced. For instance, Latin American countries do not rank as China’s top trading partners, but for many of these nations, China is a crucial, sometimes indispensable, economic ally. This imbalance challenges the concept of South-South cooperation, which emphasizes mutual and equitable benefits, revealing a disparity in the dynamics of China’s engagements with Latin American countries.

Relations between China and Argentina strengthened following Néstor Kirchner’s ascension to the presidency of Argentina in May 2003, and deepend under the presidency of his wife thereafter. When Mauricio Macri became the president in December 2015, however, he criticized the Kirchners’ approach as isolating Argentina, promising instead an influx of investments via the West. Despite these changes, Macri’s administration continued to uphold the agreements established with China by the previous governments.

Argentina’s relationship with China has progressed notably, transitioning from a “strategic partnership” established in 2004 under the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, to an elevated “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2014, during Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s tenure. This enhanced partnership reflects a broad and deep collaboration spanning economic, cultural, scientific, and health sectors. Argentina’s involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a key aspect of this partnership, signaling a commitment to improving infrastructure and connectivity. This strategic partnership underscores Argentina’s positioning as a significant partner in China’s global network of relationships.

One specific project stands out. In 2014, Argentina and China entered into an agreement to establish a Chinese deep space station in Neuquén Province. This arrangement involved constructing facilities for tracking, command, and data acquisition, including a deep space antenna. However, the agreement lacked clarity regarding the specific applications of the technology and the data that would be collected. 

The space-focused station, the first of its kind outside China, spans about 494 acres and it will benefit from tax and customs duty exemptions for 50 years. The facility operates within a frequency exclusion zone of approximately 62 miles where access is strictly controlled and requires authorization from the Chinese government. Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE) is limited to using the station for only 10 percent of its operational time, which equates to less than two hours per day.

The station, operated by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), part of the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force, raises dual-use concerns due to its potential for both civilian and military applications. Located in a remote area of the Patagonian desert, the station’s strategic location and minimal supervision have raised suspicions about its actual intent, particularly the possibility of telecommunications espionage. Additionally, the agreement between China and Argentina does not clearly define the station’s use as strictly for civilian purposes, nor does it establish effective oversight measures.

The station’s influence on the economy of Neuquén Province is ambiguous. While its construction created jobs for over 300 workers, locals have expressed doubts about the base’s true function. The station is not freely accessible. Entry is by appointment only, and there are few chances for local authorities and media representatives to tour the facility. This restricted access further fuels community concerns.

Under the Argentina-China Framework Agreement for Cooperation in the Field of Space Activities, the Argentine government agreed not to interfere with the regular operations of the station. If Argentina needs to take actions that might impact China’s activities, it pledged to notify China promptly and, when necessary, to seek alternative solutions to minimize significant disruptions to these activities. From this perspective, the formula for civilian or peaceful uses of the space station is merely an expression of hope, unenforceable due to the absence of a verification authority.

A pivotal aspect of the Argentina-China agreement is Argentina’s exemption from responsibility, both domestically and internationally, for any activities conducted by the Chinese government within Argentine territory related to the project. This includes outcomes from actions or omissions by the Chinese government or its representatives. Furthermore, China commits to indemnifying Argentina against liabilities arising from third-party claims associated with such activities. This arrangement challenges traditional norms of international space law, particularly those outlined in Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which typically imposes international responsibility on state parties for all space activities conducted under their jurisdiction.

This unique legal construct, where Argentina is exempted from international responsibility for activities performed by the Chinese government within its territory as part of the project, may set a precedent for future international space agreements. It raises critical questions about sovereignty, jurisdiction, and the management of space activities, potentially influencing global space governance.

However, this exemption is applicable only within the bilateral context of Argentina and China’s agreement and does not absolve Argentina of its obligations toward other states under international space law. The agreement’s dispute resolution clause, which is vague and imprecise, opens up questions about the handling of future disputes, especially in scenarios where activities have broader international impacts. The variety of diplomatic mechanisms provided by international law offers a contrast to this approach, suggesting a need for more defined dispute resolution methods in space agreements.

Furthermore, this agreement raises important considerations regarding Argentina’s international relations, risk management, and liability in space activities. The precedent it sets could influence other nations’ approaches to space governance, especially in terms of responsibility and indemnification. Ethical and environmental considerations also come into play, given the potential impact of foreign space activities on local communities and the environment.

Given that the CLTC operates under the jurisdiction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it’s reasonable to assume that the data it collects could fall under the purview of China’s defense apparatus, potentially serving military objectives. However, this does not inherently mean that the data will be used for aggressive or combat-related purposes. The line between military application and warfare is often blurred. In fact, the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, permits military personnel to participate in scientific research.

Argentina’s diplomatic history has been characterized by a nuanced balancing between hegemonic and emerging global powers. Initially, the nation’s economic ties were predominantly with the United Kingdom, a relationship rooted in the 19th century through British investments in Argentinian railways and infrastructure. This connection was crucial for Argentina’s agrarian-based economic expansion, with the U.K. being a primary market for its key agricultural products like beef and wheat.

With the emergence of the United States as a global power, Argentina’s foreign policy became more complex. The U.S., increasingly influential economically and politically in the Western hemisphere, viewed Argentina’s close relationship with the U.K. cautiously, especially in the context of the Monroe Doctrine. This era was characterized by a blend of cooperation and strategic rivalry, reflecting the evolving global order.

Understanding the Argentina-U.S. relationship during the first half of the 20th century is essential, especially in the context of World War II. Argentina’s extended neutrality, influenced by economic links with Axis powers and a substantial German immigrant community, was a contentious issue with the Allied forces. This neutrality was perceived by the U.S. as indirect support for the Axis, leading to strained relations.

As President Milei assumes control over Argentina’s foreign policy, it is crucial for him to acknowledge that the country’s historical commitment to neutrality and its strategy in dealing with rising global powers have often fallen short in delivering favorable long-term outcomes. Moreover, Argentina’s position as a peripheral nation places it directly in the crosshairs of the growing geopolitical tension between China and the United States, posing a significant security threat.