China’s Thinly Veiled Agenda for Space Station in Argentina, by Paz Gomez

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Introduction

Before taking office, Argentine President Javier Milei pledged not to cooperate with communist regimes—particularly the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which he labeled as murderous. However, in an unexpected turn of events, his administration has engaged with Chinese officials over the past two months to review and affirm ongoing bilateral cooperation.

On April 30, 2024, Argentine Chancellor Diana Mondino visited Beijing to meet with her Chinese counterpart. Acknowledging the vital role of Chinese cooperation, Mondino emphasized that the government would uphold a friendly foreign policy towards China. According to the Chinese embassy’s website, Mondino reiterated Argentina’s commitment to the One China principle and showed openness to enhancing cooperation in commerce, investment, tourism, infrastructure, and space. Whether the embassy is embellishing the discussion is difficult to ascertain. 

One of the cornerstone China-Argentina endeavors is the Espacio Lejano space station. This initiative originated from a 2014 agreement, granting China a 50-year lease on land in southern Argentina for the construction and operation of a deep-space antenna. 

Garret Marquis, former spokesman for the White House National Security Council, criticized the deal as “opaque and predatory.” Despite the agreement specifying civilian use for the station, it lacks oversight and enforcement clauses. Over the past five years, China’s utilization of the advanced technology and equipment at the station has been shrouded in secrecy, raising international concerns about potential military applications. 

Moreover, Espacio Lejanostrategically located close to the Strait of Magellan and the Antarctic—is part of a broader Chinese effort to expand space activities, which has significant geopolitical implications. China’s investments in space infrastructure across Latin America enhance its global influence and technological capabilities. 

In addition to addressing China’s potential military activities in Argentina, this investigation explores the broader implications of Chinese space and satellite initiatives across the region. By developing extensive space projects in Latin America, China is securing a significant competitive advantage over the United States and the European Union. Even if not currently being used for overt military applications, these strategic assets enable China to defend its interests and counter any potential retaliation from Western governments.

Background

In 2014, Argentina signed an agreement with China to build and operate a deep space antenna in the Neuquén province, under a tax exemption regime. The agreement included a 50-year lease of a 200-hectares plot to establish a space station and stated the Argentine government must not interfere with China’s activities. It also absolved Argentina of any domestic or international liability resulting from actions or omissions by the Chinese regime. 

Political and military analyst Carlo J. V. Caro argues that “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.”

The station became operational in 2019. It is primarily operated by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), a subentity of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, often without meaningful oversight from the Argentine authorities. Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities (ANCSA) has authorization to use the station for less than two hours per day—10 percent of the operational time. 

In 2020, Argentine and Chinese governments signed an additional agreement aimed at enhancing transparency. It stated that “technical and scientific data obtained through joint experiments, during the implementation of specific cooperation programs, should be immediately available for the two parties.” However, aside from joint projects, little is known about the activities conducted by China in the station. Juan Uriburu, a lawyer who has worked on two Argentina-China projects said to Reuters, “It really doesn’t matter what it says in the contract or in the agreement… How do you make sure they play by the rules?”

As the Milei administration has strengthened relations with Western governments—in particular the United States—US officials have expressed concerns about the station. On April 2, US Southern Command General Laura J. Richardson visited Argentina to deepen defense and security cooperation. One of the outcomes of the meeting was the decision to inspect the Espacio Lejano station. The inspection took place on April 18–19. 

Paz Gómez

Paz Gómez is the Econ Americas research director and a widely published economic commentator. Based in Quito, she leads the firm’s office in Ecuador. She holds an MS in digital currency and blockchain from the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, and a BA in international relations and political science from San Francisco University of Quito. She is a cofounder and the academic coordinator of Libre Razón, a classical-liberal think tank in Quito, Ecuador. Follow @mpazgomezm.

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