Chinese ‘spaceport’ military outpost in Argentina?

An international space venture called Satellogic was just announced, with headquarters in Buenos Aires, to produce satellites for the China Great Wall Industry Corp at a new plant in Montevideo, Uruguay. It is slated to deliver its first 13 satellites this year, to be launched on China’s Long March 6 rocket. China Great Wall was established in 1980 under auspices of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, and operates the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, the principal space facility in the People's Republic (MercoPress, SpaceNews, NASA SpaceFlight) But the announcement comes amid growing concern within Argentina about activities at the Chinese-operated "spaceport" at Bajada del Agrio in Patagonia—and the apparent role of the People's Liberation Army in the facility.

The tracking facility in southern Neuquén occasioned protests when construction began in 2015. News site InfoBae just reported on replies to its questions about the facility received from Argentina's National Commission of Space Activities (CONAE). It was confirmed that last month, a high-level delegation visited the facility from China Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), the Xian Satellite Control Center (XSCC), Beijing Aerospace Command Center (BACC) and the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunication Technology (BITTT). These agencies, which jointly oversee the Bajada del Agrio facility, are all subordinate to the PLA's General Armaments Department (GAD), as confirmed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative project. Global Security website indicates that the GAD recently changed its name to the Equipment Development Department.

The delegation publicly praised the role of the Bajada del Agrio facility in the Chang'e 4 lunar probe. In response to InfoBae's questions, CONAE insisted that the facility is akin to that operated by the European Space Agency at Malargüe, in Mendoza province. But InfoBae, citing EU and US diplomatic sources, countered that "there is a big difference between the space station at Malargüe and that at Neuquén: that of the EU depends on a civil agency, while that at Bajada del Agrio receives orders directly from the People's Army of China.

The 50-year concession for the facility was granted by the previous (left-wing) government of Cristina Kirchner, and has been honored by the new (right-wing) President Mauricio Macri. Argentine media commentator Jorge Lanata noted that both governments, "under pressure from the United States, made clear to the Chinese that the station will only be for peaceful, not military, use. But the tecnicians who manage it answer directly to the Chinese People's Army." (El Trece, Nov. 4)

InfoBae noted last February, when the installation first went operational: "Only personnel authorized by Beijing (military and members of the Chinese regime) will have access to the facilities. No Argentine will be able to enter to supervise works, or to know what happens in the mysterious property."

Perfil reports that CONAE may "obtain data" from the antenna at Bajada del Agrio for one hour and 40 minutes each day, although it is unclear if their personnel may actually access the facility. 

During President Xi Jinping's state visit in November, Argentina also announced an agreement on Chinese-financed construction of the Atucha III nuclear power plant, in Buenos Aires province, the South American nation's fourth. (Reuters, Nov. 28)

Bolivia entered into its own coperation pact with China Great Wall Industry in 2010.

Photo via InfoBae