LAS LAJAS, Argentina – When China built a military space station in the Argentine Patagonia region, it promised to include a visitor center to explain the purpose of its powerful 16-story antenna.
The installations of a Chinese space station are visible in Las Lajas, Argentina, on January 22, 2019. Photo taken January 22, 2019. REUTERS / Agustin Marcarian
The center is now built – behind the 8-foot barbed wire fence that surrounds the entire space station. The visits are by appointment only.
Enveloped in secrecy, the complex has stirred up unrest among local residents, fueled conspiracy theories and raised concerns in the Trump administration regarding its true purpose, according to interviews with dozens of residents, current and former officials of the Argentine government, US officials, satellite and astronomy specialists and legal experts.
The stated purpose of the station is observation and peaceful space exploration and, according to Chinese media, played a key role in the landing of a spacecraft in China on the dark side of the moon in January.
But the remote complex of 200 hectares operates with little surveillance by the Argentine authorities, based on hundreds of pages of Argentine government documents obtained by Reuters and reviewed by experts in international law. (For an interactive version of this story: tmsnrt.rs/2TlXEMj)
The former Foreign Minister of President Mauricio Macri, Susana Malcorra, stated in an interview that Argentina has no physical control over the operations of the station. In 2016, it reviewed the China space station to include a clause that was only for civilian use.
The agreement obliges China to inform Argentina of its activities at the station, but does not provide any enforcement mechanism for the authorities to ensure that it is not used for military purposes, international experts said.
"It does not matter what you say in the contract or in the agreement," said Juan Uriburu, an Argentine lawyer who has worked on two major joint ventures between Argentina and China. "How do you make them play according to the rules?"
"I would say that, given that one of the actors involved in the agreements reports directly to the Chinese army, it is at least intriguing to see that the Argentine government has not dealt with the issue with greater specificity," he said.
The Chinese space program is managed by its army, the People's Liberation Army. The Patagonia station is managed by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), which reports to the Strategic Support Force of the PLA.
Beijing insists that its space program is for peaceful purposes and its foreign ministry in a statement has stressed that the Argentine station is for civilian use only. He said the station was open to the public and the media.
"The suspicions of some individuals have ulterior motives," the ministry said.
Asked how to ensure that the station is not used for military purposes, the Argentine space agency CONAE stated that the agreement between the two countries has declared their commitment to a "peaceful use" of the project.
He said the station's radio emissions were monitored, but radio astronomy experts said the Chinese could easily hide the illicit data in these broadcasts or add encrypted channels at frequencies agreed with Argentina.
CONAE also said they did not have permanent employees at the station, but they did "periodic" trips there.
The United States has long been concerned about what they consider China's strategy to "militarize" space, according to a US official, who added that there was reason to be skeptical about Beijing's insistence that the Argentine base was strictly exploratory.
Other US officials who spoke with Reuters expressed similar concerns.
"Patagonia's land station, secretly accepted by a corrupt and financially vulnerable government about ten years ago, is another example of opaque and predatory Chinese relations that undermine the sovereignty of host nations," said Garrett Marquis, spokesperson for the White House. Council.
Some radio astronomy experts have said that US concerns have been exaggerated and the station was probably publicized – a scientific initiative with Argentina – even though its 35-meter diameter dish could eavesdrop on foreign satellites.
Tony Beasley, director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, said the station could, in theory, "listen" to the satellites of other governments, potentially collecting sensitive data. But this kind of listening could be done with much less sophisticated equipment.
"Anyone can do it, I can do it with a plate in my backyard, basically," Beasley said. "I do not know that there is anything particularly sinister or disturbing in any part of the Chinese space radio network in Argentina."
Argentine officials have defended the Chinese station, saying that the agreement with China is similar to the one signed by the European Space Agency, which has built a station in a nearby province. Both have 50-year tax-exempt leases. Argentine scientists theoretically have access to 10 percent of the antenna time at both stations.
The law experts who reviewed the documents said that there is a noticeable difference: the ESA is a civil agency.
"All the governments of ESA play with democratic rules," said Uriburu. "The party is not the state, but it's not the case in China, the party is the state."
In the United States, NASA, like ESA, is a civil agency, while the US military has its own space command for military or national security missions. In some cases, NASA and the army have collaborated, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
"The line gets confused sometimes," he said. "But this is really the exception."
In Las Lajas, a city of 7,000 people located about 40 minutes by car from the station, the antenna is a source of confusion and suspicion.
"These people do not allow you access, they do not allow you to see," said shop owner Alfredo Garrido, 51. "My opinion is that this is not a scientific research base, but rather a Chinese military base."
Among the wildest conspiracy theories, theories heard during a visit to the city that the base was used to build a nuclear bomb.
The journey from Las Lajas to the space station is sterile and dusty. There are no signs that indicate the existence of the station. The sprawling antenna is suddenly visible after a bend in the dirt road off the main street. The big plate is the only sign of human life for miles.
The station became operational in April. Thirty Chinese employees work and live on site, which does not employ local people, according to the Mayor of Las Lajas, Maria Espinosa, adding that the station was good for the local economy.
Espinosa said he rented his home to Chinese space station workers before moving to the base and visiting the site alone at least eight times.
Others in Las Lajas have said they rarely see anyone from the station in town, except when the staff makes a trip to his Chinese supermarket.
Reuters requested access to the station through CONAE, the local provincial government and the Chinese embassy. CONAE stated that he was unable to approve a short-term Reuters visit, but was planning a day for the media.
He added that students from neighboring cities have already visited the complex.
When the Congress of Argentina discussed the space station in 2015, during the presidency of Cristina Fernandez, the opposition lawmakers questioned why there was no clause that was only for civil use. However, Congress approved the agreement.
When Macri took office in 2015, he was worried that the space station's agreement had not explicitly stated that it should only be used by civilians, said Malcorra, his then foreign minister, who flew to Beijing in 2016 to rework it.
Malcorra said she was forced into her ability to see her again because it had already been signed by Fernandez. The Chinese, however, agreed to include the clause that was for civilian use. He insisted on a press conference with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing to publicize it.
"This was something I asked to make sure there was no doubt or no agenda hidden anywhere here, and that our people knew we had done this," he said from his home in Spain.
But it is still insufficient on a key point: supervision.
"There was no way we could do that after the level of recognition that this agreement had on our side, which was recognized, accepted and approved by Congress," Malcorra said.
"I would have written the agreement in a different way," he added. "I would have clauses that articulate access to supervision".
Malcorra said he was confident that Argentina could turn to China for "reassurance" if there were any doubts about the activities at the station. When asked how Argentina would know about these activities, he said: "There will be some people who will tell us, do not worry".
VISITORS OF LOGGING
The opacity of the operations of the station and the reluctance of Argentine officials to talk about it makes it difficult to determine who has visited the complex exactly.
A provincial government official provided Reuters with a list of local journalists who had visited the facility. A number that seemed to have been visited in a single day in February 2017, 14 months before it became operational, a review of their stories and posts on social media shown.
Apart from Espinosa, the mayor of Las Lajas, no one else interviewed by Reuters in the city had toured the station. Resident Matias Uran, 24, said his sister was among a group of students who visited last year. They saw a dining room and a games room, he said.
Alberto Hugo Amarilla, 60, who runs a small hotel in Las Lajas, recalled a dinner he attended shortly after the construction of the site.
There, he said, a Chinese officer in town to visit the site greeted him enthusiastically. His dinner companions told him that the official had learned that Amarilla was a retired army officer.
The official, they said, was a Chinese general.
Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; Additional reports by Dave Sherwood in SANTIAGO, Matt Spetalnick, Mark Hosenball and Phil Stewart in WASHINGTON, Joey Roulette in ORLANDO, Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Ross Colvin, Julie Marchese and Paul Thomasch