A recent New York Times piece has sounded the alarm over what Washington perceives as China's "expanding reach into Latin America," related to a space mission control center located in the heart of the Patagonia region of Argentina.
It begins with an eerily beautiful description of an imposing structure, guarded by Chinese military personnel, unexpectedly rising out of Patagonian desert:
The giant antenna rises from the desert floor like an apparition, a gleaming metal tower jutting 16 stories above an endless wind-whipped stretch of Patagonia. The 450-ton device, with its hulking dish embracing the open skies, is the centerpiece of a $50 million satellite and space mission control station built by the Chinese military. The station began operating in March, playing a pivotal role in China’s audacious expedition to the far side of the moon — an endeavor that Argentine officials say they are elated to support.
The underlying perspective of the New York Times report over what is otherwise ostensibly a peaceful Argentine-Chinese space communications partnership is presented bluntly in the third stanza: "The isolated base is one of the most striking symbols of Beijing’s long push to transform Latin America and shape its future for generations to come — often in ways that directly undermine the United States’ political, economic and strategic power in the region."
For Washington strategists the Chinese military-constructed "deep space research" communications base, defined visually by the massive antenna that juts out of the otherwise small facility in an isolated country area of Neuquen province, represents China's growing ability to sow deep economic inroads and expanding political influence in Latin America via secretive negotiations.
The NYT notes "concerns" over Chinese tech infrastructure being established as part of an extension to China's global Belt and Road initiative:
But the way the base was negotiated — in secret, at a time when Argentina desperately needed investment — and concerns that it could enhance China’s intelligence-gathering capabilities in the Western Hemisphere have set off a debate in Argentina about the risks and benefits of being pulled into China’s orbit.
Base construction moved forward after a 50-year contract for was negotiated between the government of Argentina's former President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner (2007-2015) and the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and approved by Argentinian parliament in February 2015. It finally went online in March of 2018.
The NYT charts China's significant economic inroads into both Argentina and Latin America in general, starting with the fact that China eclipsed the United States as South America and the Caribbean's top trading partner starting in 2015, topping $244 billion last year, over twice that of a decade earlier.
This, the Times says, is what allowed China to make deep trade, infrastructure, and military inroads into Latin America at a time when both the Obama and Trump administrations focused their attention elsewhere in the globe, for example, on China's expanding trade corridor in central Asia.
And more specifically, the secret negotiations for the space control station with Argentina's president occurred at a time when the country and its neighbors were desperate to secure external loans and in some cases urgent bail outs:
Perhaps more significantly, China has issued tens of billions of dollars in commodities-backed loans across the Americas, giving it claim over a large share of the region’s oil — including nearly 90 percent of Ecuador’s reserves — for years.
China has also made itself indispensable by rescuing embattled governments and vital state-controlled companies in countries like Venezuela and Brazil, willing to make big bets to secure its place in the region.
Here in Argentina, a nation that had been shut out of international credit markets for defaulting on about $100 billion in bonds, China became a godsend for then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
At the very moment China "was extending a helping hand" it then "began the secret negotiations that led to the satellite and space control station here in Patagonia".
The NYT goes on the cite a number of Washington defense officials and analysts who present an alarmist scenario of what's described as China's discreet and "far-reaching plans" to hitch "the fate of several countries in the region to its own" in order to feed its "voracious appetite for the region’s oil, iron, soybeans and copper" — all the while surreptitiously laying down security and intelligence infrastructure.
An arms control official under the Obama administration, Frank A. Rose, told the Times, “They are deploying these capabilities to blunt American military advantages, which are in many ways derived from space,” which he identifies as sophisticated jamming techniques that could "disrupt and destroy satellites" — though without citing specific examples of such aggressive acts happening.
And further, the Times describes the potential ulterior capabilities and uses of the 450-ton Chinese antenna and space communications station:
Antennas and other equipment that support space missions, like the kind China now has here in Patagonia, can increase China’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, experts say.
“A giant antenna is like a giant vacuum cleaner,” said Dean Cheng, a former congressional investigator who studies China’s national security policy. “What you are sucking up is signals, data, all sorts of things.”
Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said American military officials were assessing the implications of the Chinese monitoring station. Chinese officials declined requests for interviews about the base and their space program.
Though certainly worrisome that Americans' telecommunications data could be swept up by such a Chinese space listening post, it could simply be that China first and foremost seeks trade as well as tech partners throughout the world to allay the massive costs that come which such endeavors as space exploration (like most any other advanced industrial power today).
But then again as we've reported with increased frequency over the past year, China's rapid military and advanced telecommunications and weapons modernization — undergirded by a burgeoning defense budget (it recently unveiled its largest in three years) - has been nothing short of remarkable, and is set to challenge the West on several fronts.
Perhaps, in what would be a nightmare scenario for Western officials who've been caught off guard, China has indeed already staked out a new massive intelligence-collecting outpost south of America's border under the guise of space exploration.