Axe Falls On China’s Secret “Space Base” In The Americas; Argentina May Inspect Espacio Lejano Station

Argentina’s effort to distance itself from China is becoming increasingly evident. It is now serious about conducting a formal inspection of a Chinese “space station” built on Argentine soil.  

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The Chinese “space station,” positioned 18 miles from the village of Bajada del Agrio in Argentina’s southwestern province of Neuquén, was established in 2014 through an agreement between China and the administration of the then-President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. 

Argentina’s Congress did not approve the station until February 2015. However, construction had already begun in 2013, and it was completed in 2017.  

The base, which China controls through a 50-year lease, stands on a 200-hectare plot and comprises a 16-story antenna. It is staffed by personnel from the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), a unit ultimately under the authority of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force.

The base has raised significant concerns and caused unease among the area’s residents. It has also spurred conspiracy theories and raised suspicions within the US administration regarding its true intentions.

On April 2, a source from the Argentine presidential office, speaking to the news outlet Infobae, pointed out that President Javier Milei was considering a request to inspect the clandestine Chinese base.

The purpose, as articulated by the source, was to assess any potential irregularities associated with the base in Neuquén. The possibility of a contract review was highlighted. 

The report elaborated that the contract stipulated that “ten percent of the resources in the base must be utilized by Argentina,” which is what the inspection aimed to verify. 

“It is necessary to check what was built and what was not built, from what was established in the contract,” the source added.

The development follows Argentina’s recent decision to procure 24 surplus F-16 fighter jets from Denmark, which has dealt a significant blow to Beijing’s aspirations of exporting its newly manufactured Chinese/Pakistani-made JF-17 fighter jets to Argentina. 

Beijing had actively engaged in negotiations with Argentina’s previous government, led by then-President Alberto Fernandez, to pursue this goal. 

Under new President Javier Milei’s leadership, Buenos Aires is increasingly aligning itself with Western governments. The announcement of a potential inspection of the Chinese “space base” coincides with the visit of the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Commander, Gen. Laura J. Richardson, to Argentina on April 2 to enhance defense and security cooperation.

Argentina Banned In Its Own Territory By China

China’s explanation asserts that the station’s primary objective is peaceful space observation and exploration. Equipped with a 35-meter-diameter antenna tailored for deep space exploration missions, it can probe distances exceeding 300,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface. 

This station has one of three antennae comprising China’s deep space station network. The base has also played a key role in facilitating China’s successful landing of a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon in January, 2019.

Despite its location within Argentine territory, the remote 200-hectare compound operates with minimal oversight from Argentine authorities, as extensive documentation obtained by Reuters and scrutinized by international law experts previously revealed. 

The station remains largely inaccessible to the Argentine government, giving rise to questions about the extent of control and oversight exerted over its operations. 

During an interview, Susana Malcorra, who served as Argentina’s foreign minister from 2015 to 2017, emphasized that Argentina lacked physical oversight of the station’s operations. 

Espacio Lejano Station - Wikipedia
Espacio Lejano Station – Wikipedia

In 2016, she revised the China space station deal to specify that it should only be used for civilian purposes. Despite this stipulation, the agreement lacks an enforcement mechanism for Argentine authorities to ensure compliance and prevent potential military use of the station.

The space-focused station also benefits from tax and customs duty exemptions for 50 years. It operates within a frequency exclusion zone — the area adjacent to a transmitting antenna in which the Radio Frequency field strength may exceed relevant exposure guidelines — spanning approximately 62 miles, which is tightly regulated with access requiring authorization from the Chinese government.

Even Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE) is granted limited access to the station, confined to utilizing it for a mere 10 percent of its operational time, which translates to less than two hours per day. 

The base’s access is also tightly controlled, with prior appointments necessary for entry.  As part of the Argentina-China Framework Agreement for Collaboration in Space Endeavors, Argentina committed to refraining from interfering with the station’s regular operations. 

If Argentina needs to undertake action that could affect China’s operations, it has agreed to inform China and, if necessary, explore alternative solutions to mitigate significant disruptions.

Considering this arrangement, the framework for utilizing the space station for civilian or peaceful purposes appears to be more an aspirational statement, lacking enforceability due to the absence of a verification mechanism.

Concerns Associated With The Chinese Space Station

US officials have long expressed concerns about what they perceive as China’s efforts to “militarize” space. They argue that Beijing’s claims that the Argentine base is solely for exploration should be viewed with skepticism.

The US consistently asserts that the Patagonia ground station was established secretly by a corrupt and financially vulnerable government a decade ago. Such opaque and exploitative dealings by China undermine the sovereignty of host nations, according to the US.

During a recent interview on March 31, US Ambassador to Argentina Marc Stanley voiced surprise over Argentina’s decision to permit Chinese military presence at the Neuquén base. 

He questioned the secrecy surrounding the activities of Chinese armed forces operating a space station, emphasizing the need for clarity on their objectives. 

The Chinese Embassy in Argentina vehemently refuted the US ambassador’s assertions, characterizing his remarks as “inappropriate.” 

ESA’s deep-space tracking station in Malargüe, Argentina. European Space Agency

The Embassy also pointed out that in 2019, Argentina’s Foreign Ministry and representatives from the National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE) visited the base alongside a diplomatic delegation, which included US officials. 

Daniel Filmus, former Minister of Science, Technology & Innovation under President Alberto Fernández’s administration, also toured the station facilities on April 4, 2022. 

Past Argentine administrations have defended the Chinese station, drawing parallels with agreements made with the European Space Agency (ESA), which also operates a station under similar conditions in a nearby province. 

Both arrangements entail 50-year tax-free leases, with Argentine scientists only granted access to 10 percent of antenna time at European and Chinese facilities. 

However, a notable disparity lies in the operational oversight: while the ESA functions as a civilian agency, the Chinese base falls under the management of the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), reporting to the PLA’s Strategic Support Force.

Despite these concerns, some experts argue that US apprehensions may be exaggerated and that the station likely serves its stated purpose as a scientific collaboration with Argentina, even though it possesses the capability to intercept signals from foreign satellites.