China’s Thinly Veiled Agenda for Space Station in Argentina

Espacio Lejano Allows People’s Liberation Army to Advance in Latin America

China Space Station

China aims to establish control and autonomy in the space spectrum to wield more influence in tracking, surveillance, and censorship. (Sebastián Díaz)

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Key Findings

  • Before taking office, Argentine President Javier Milei stated he would not cooperate with communist regimes. Instead, he has favored strengthening ties with Western governments. On April 2, 2024, US Southern Commander General Laura J. Richardson visited Argentina to enhance defense and security cooperation. One of the outcomes was the decision to inspect Espacio Lejano (deep space), a 200-hectare Chinese space station in southern Argentina.
  • The inspection involved a physical examination of the station’s operations to ensure that the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC) is only conducting civilian activities. CLTC manages the station under the directives of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). US officials fear the station enhances China’s global tracking and surveillance capabilities, thus broadening China’s military capabilities.
  • China has not only established a space facility in Argentina but also in Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and the Antarctic. Although purportedly for civilian activities, China is gaining a competitive advantage in the Strait of Magellan for satellite launches and military expansion, which could lead to increased Chinese influence in the region.


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.


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. 

The Milei administration announced that “the purpose of the visit was to evaluate the station’s operational state, security, and compliance of infrastructure parameters, as well as enhancing transparency and relations between European and Chinese partners—in the framework of current agreements.” Although the inspection tentatively confirmed that CLTC is not conducting military activities, the Argentine government has yet to release its final report.

US Concerns over Chinese Space Station

In March, General Richardson presented a statement before the US Congress arguing the station plays a critical role in the geopolitical competition between the United States and China. With the station’s capacities, the People’s Liberation Army could enhance its global tracking and surveillance capabilities, thus strengthening its global military reach. 

These concerns stem from the sort of equipment and technology installed at Espacio Lejano. The station hosts a 35-meter diameter antenna designed for deep space exploration missions, capable of reaching distances over 300,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface. This antenna can pick up sensitive data from other government satellites, but that apparently is a minor concern. Tony Beasley, director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, said to Reuters: “ that kind of listening could be done with far less sophisticated equipment.”

China Space Station Antenna
The main antenna of ground station Espacio Lejano in Neuquén, Argentina. (Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación).

With equipment of such magnitude, China is seeking to have eyes in the sky. A 2022 investigation conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) explains: “Ground stations also help keep track of the tens of thousands of satellites and other objects in Earth’s orbit—a capability known as space situational awareness (SSA) that is critical for fighting and winning wars in information-rich battle spaces.” The CSIS investigation describes how the antenna at Espacio Lejano sends and receives data through the S and X bands, and uses the Ka band for receiving only. Bands are different segments of the radio spectrum that transmit specific types of data. 

While the three bands can transmit data related to scientific and commercial communications, the S band is the more common for that purpose. Instead, the X and Ka bands are usually reserved for government communications. The X band transmits data related to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), weapons tracking, and missile guidance, while the  communication between military satellites and aircraft typically occurs in the Ka band. 

Major General Gregory J. Gangnon, deputy chief of Space Operations for Intelligence at the US Space Force, said at the Air and Space Forces Association Warfare symposium in March: “[China’s] on-orbit armada of satellites can track us, can sense us, can see us … and can now hold US forces at risk in a way we have never understood or had to face to date.” Gagnon included that China is using around 350 satellites for ISR purposes.

As part of the China Deep Space Network, Espacio Lejano had a pivotal role in the Chang’e 4 mission that launched the first robotic lander and rover to the far side of the moon in 2019. This was one of the first events that initiated the new “space race” between the United States and China. Kazuto Suzuki, public-policy professor at the University of Tokyo, warned to the Guardian that this confrontation goes beyond the Cold War’s “feet on the moon” goal. 

“China wants to be first, so they have the right to dominate and monopolize the resources. If you have the resources in your hand, then you have a huge advantage in the future of space exploration,” Suzuki explained. In 2021, for instance, China and Russia announced the construction of a shared research station on the surface of the moon. 

China’s Growing Comfort in Latin America

Argentina was one of the first Latin American countries to establish diplomatic relations with China, by establishing a strategic partnership in 2004 under the presidency of the late socialist Néstor Kirchner. In 2014, Argentina and China deepened economic, cultural, scientific and health cooperation with a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” which included the space station. 

Evan Ellis, a research professor at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and expert on China-Latin American relations, contends that the Chinese presence in Argentina holds strategic importance for the CCP. Argentina’s geopolitical location provides China with a favorable position to defy US regional dominion and expand its diplomatic ties between China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). China and CELAC established a bilateral forum in 2014 aimed at promoting cooperation in different fields, including scientific and technological innovation.  

Furthermore, as explained by Analyst Carlo J.V. Caro, China’s growing influence in Latin America has never been something altruistic: “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.” China’s space expansion can also function as a shield for China in case of conflict. 

In addition to Espacio Lejano in Argentina, China has built space facilities in Venezuela (2008), Bolivia (2013), and Peru (2015). It also operates two ground stations in the Antarctic and has gained access to facilities in Brazil through a research partnership. Previously, China had access to space facilities in Chile. However, in 2020, the Swedish Space Corporation, which operates Chilean stations, chose not to renew contracts with China. This was due to concerns that Chinese antennas might have violated terms of use by engaging in military intelligence and surveillance activities.

China Space Station Latin America According to Cate Cadell, national security reporter at the Washington Post, ground stations are vital for performing telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) functions. These functions enable the provision of commercial services such as “internet connectivity, Earth imaging, and the monitoring of civilian space research vehicles.” 

Cadell underscores the urgency of countering China’s satellite expansion by referring to the case of “the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where communication satellites and terminals made by Starlink, the satellite internet company operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have become a lifeline for Ukrainian forces… Earlier this year, Chinese military researchers said work has begun on launching a mega-constellation of almost 13,000 low-earth orbit satellites, designed to compete with Starlink, which has its own global constellation of ground stations.”

China aims to establish control and autonomy in the space spectrum, not only to gain an advantage in the space race but also to wield more influence in tracking, surveillance, and censorship. The availability of lifelines provided by Starlink’s satellites and terminals could be disrupted, and China could potentially leverage its space facilities as weapons.

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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