China's Space Station in Argentina Is a Mystery

07 February, 2019

A tall, powerful antenna looks up to the sky from the Patagonia desert in Argentina.

It is part of a Chinese space station built there over 200 hectares. A 2.5-meter high fence surrounds the area. The space station came with a promise of a visitor's center to explain its purpose.

China's space program, including the space station, is run by its military, the People's Liberation Army. The Chinese foreign ministry says the station in Patagonia is for civilian use only and is open to the public and media.

The station became operational in April.

The installations of a Chinese space station are seen in Las Lajas, Argentina, January 22, 2019. (REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian)
The installations of a Chinese space station are seen in Las Lajas, Argentina, January 22, 2019. (REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian)

Chinese media have presented the station as a peaceful space observation and exploration tool. They also say it played a key role in China's landing of a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon in January.

The space station operates with little oversight by the Argentine authorities. That is the conclusion of international law experts who reviewed hundreds of pages of Argentine government documents obtained by the Reuters news agency.

Visits to the station are by appointment only. Experts say the United States is concerned about the station's true purpose. That secrecy also has worried those who live near the area.

The agreement with China

The agreement to build the space station came in 2015, during the presidency of Cristina Fernandez. Opposition lawmakers questioned why there was nothing within the agreement that required the station to be for civilian use only. But, the Argentine Congress approved the deal.

Former Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra said in 2016 that Argentina has no control over the station's operations. That year, she negotiated a new deal that required it to be for civilian use only. But international law experts say the deal does not provide a process for Argentina to make sure the station is not being used for military purposes.

Argentina's space agency CONAE told Reuters it has no workers based at the station but CONAE members do make "periodic" visits and listen to radio transmissions. But experts agree that the Chinese could easily hide data in these transmissions.

Juan Uriburu is an Argentine lawyer who worked on two major Argentina-China joint projects. He asked, "How do you make sure they play by the rules?"

Concerns over spying

Garrett Marquis is a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. He said the deal was "another example of opaque and predatory Chinese dealings."

Some radio astronomy experts say the concerns of the United States have been overblown. Tony Beasley is director of the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory. He said the Patagonian station could, in theory, "listen" to other governments' satellites to gather data. But he added that could be done with other equipment, too.

"Anyone can do that. I can do that with a dish in my back yard..." Beasley said.

Argentine officials have defended the Chinese station. They have said the agreement with China is similar to the one it signed with the European Space Agency (ESA).

However, the law experts who examined the documents said there is one notable difference: ESA is a civilian agency.

"All of the ESA governments play by democratic rules," Uriburu said. "The party is not the state. But that's not the case in China. The party is the state."

Reuters asked CONAE, the local government and China's embassy for permission to visit the station. CONAE said it was not able to approve the visit, but said it was planning a media day.

"They don't let you see"

The space station is a 40 minutes away by car from Las Lajas, a town of 7,000 people. Maria Espinosa, the mayor of Las Lajas, said 30 Chinese employees work and live on the station. It employs no local people. Espinosa said she rented her house to Chinese space station workers before they moved to the base. She said she had visited the site herself at least eight times.

Other than Espinosa, Reuters could not find anyone else in the town who had visited the station. One local said his sister was among a group of students who visited last year. They saw an eating room and a game room, he said.

Others in Las Lajas said they rarely see anyone from the station. Alfredo Garrido is a shop owner in the town. He said, "These people don't allow you access, they don't let you see." He says he believes the station "is not a scientific research base, but rather a Chinese military base."

I'm Jonathan Evans. And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Hai Do adapted this story for Learning English based on Reuters news report. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

oversight - n. the act or job of directing work that is being done

transmission - n. the act or process of sending signals

opaque - adj. difficult to understand or explain

predatory - adj. wrongly harming or using others

overblown - adj. made to seem very important

province - n. a large part of a country