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13/09/2018 | Opinion - China Uses Space Diplomacy to Extend Its Inroads Into Latin America

Andrew J. Wight

“The Monroe Doctrine hasn’t been tested like this since the Cold War.”


MEDELLIN, Colombia—China has quickly established an extensive track record of using infrastructure spending, on everything from stadiums to ports, to secure resources and bolster trade across Eurasia, Africa and Latin America. Security and space industry analysts now say 2018 has already been a banner year for another part of China’s soft power outreach, as it has sold satellites and support systems to Nigeria, Cambodia and Pakistan. China’s space ambitions are closely tied to its Belt and Road Initiative. By the end of the year, it is expected that a basic system of 18 Chinese BeiDou-3 global positioning satellites will serve countries such as Pakistan, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates—all partners in Beijing’s massive infrastructure and development program.

But it is in Latin America that China’s space diplomacy takes on an added dimension. The majority of the 17 countries that still recognize Taiwan are located in the region. While on a recent trip to Latin America, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis oversaw the signing of a new agreement with Brazil to share information about known space objects, including Brazilian satellites. They also discussed an agreement to allow the United States to launch satellites from Brazil’s Alcantara Launch Center. In neighboring Argentina, the Chinese military recently completed a mysterious $50 million ground station in the remote Patagonia region—for what it says are peaceful, non-military purposes of monitoring satellites and other space missions. 

To the north, in Bolivia, China offered one of its standard satellite deals: the Tupac Katari 1 communications satellite, Bolivia’s first ever, which was launched from China in 2013 and named after an indigenous Bolivian figure who led a revolt against Spanish colonial rule in the 18th century. The sticker price of this system, according to the Bolivian Space Agency, was $302 million, 85 percent of which was financed with a loan from the Development Bank of China. 

Why Bolivia? For one thing, it is home to the world’s largest reserves of lithium. In early 2018, China’s ambassador to Bolivia, Liang Yu, told La Razon, a newspaper in La Paz, that as a major car and truck manufacturer, China would be the largest market for lithium batteries for years.

W. Alejandro Sanchez, a Latin America specialist based in Washington, D.C., who studies space diplomacy, says that while the Tupac Katari satellite has helped bring down TV and internet costs for Bolivian consumers, it has not revolutionized communications in the country as President Evo Morales’ government initially predicted it would. According to recent reports in El Deber, a Bolivian newspaper, the satellite seems to be at capacity already. 

The Bolivian project was fairly straightforward, in terms of how Bolivia outsourced its satellite development to China and shared the costs. Venezuela has also been a recipient of Chinese space expertise, but the business case for Beijing is becoming less and less clear as Venezuela’s political and economic crisis worsens. Since 2008, the Venezuelan government has had three satellites built in and launched from China, the latest one just last year. Venezuela had for years been a large—and until recently, reliable—supplier of crude oil to the Chinese market, but its rate of crude exports to China sank to their lowest level in nearly eight years this summer. 

The Venezuelan Remote Sensing Satellite, known as VRSS-1, launched in 2012 at a cost of approximately $145 million. The VRSS-2, which launched in October 2017, is estimated to have cost a similar amount, with China reportedly providing loans backed by Venezuelan oil production. Beijing went ahead with the VRSS-2 despite the steady decline in Venezuela’s stability since President Nicolas Maduro took power in 2013. But with Venezuela’s deteriorating situation threatening to derail further oil exports, it is unclear if more satellites will be built or launched if the oil doesn’t start to flow smoothly again. 

According to Carolyn Belle, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, which studies the aerospace industry, the Venezuelan government has not commented on how much capacity is currently being used from Venezuela’s first satellite, Venesat-1, which was launched from China in 2008. But there remains unmet demand for connectivity across the country. 

Pro-Maduro media outlets report that Venezuelan scientists, with Chinese help, are learning how to domestically manufacture their own satellites, but Sanchez says that at this point it is hard to believe that Venezuela has the financial or human resources to jumpstart its own satellite production. “Unsurprisingly, President Maduro has discussed Venezuela’s satellites as helping Venezuela achieve ‘independence’ from the U.S. and Europe,” Sanchez adds. 

The entire program has been cloaked in secrecy, and various Venezuelan sources suggest that ground stations built by the Chinese to track the three satellites are now running on skeleton crews, if at all. The government may not even know where all the satellites are currently positioned.

So why, whether in crisis-wracked Venezuela or elsewhere across the region, is China still keen to offer this space technology on fairly generous financial terms? Put simply, because of trade, which has ballooned between China and Latin America by nearly 2,000 percent since 2000, according to a 2015 report by the Atlantic Council. Three years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $250 billion in foreign direct investments in Latin America by the year 2025; as of this year, Beijing is about halfway there. 

“It’s hard to find evidence of the trend slowing down,” says Maria Fernanda Perez Arguello, a project associate at the Atlantic Council. “The dominos are lined up to fall in China’s direction.” She expects that future U.S. administrations “will prioritize the stemming of Chinese influence in the politics of Latin America—in fact, Mattis’ recent visit to Colombia, Argentina and Chile is an example of this. The Monroe Doctrine hasn’t been tested like this since the Cold War.”

But there are other competitors, such as Russia, vying for the Latin American space market—“not to mention private European companies like Airbus, which constructed the Peruvian satellite PeruSat-1,” says Sanchez. Although China is not “cornering the Latin American space market, its checkbook diplomacy has helped it secure allies in the Western Hemisphere,” he adds, “in addition to buying recognition of the remaining countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that still recognize Taiwan.”

Fulton Armstrong, a senior faculty fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University who worked as a senior official in the Clinton administration, cautions that the lasting diplomatic effect of these Chinese satellite deals may be fleeting. “Stadium diplomacy does not, in my experience, penetrate Latin American hearts and minds.” He says the attitude of many people in the region is, “you want to give me a stadium, I’ll take it—for sure. But you won’t own me.”

***Andrew J. Wight is an Australian journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. He has reported for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph in the U.K., and NBC News, among other outlets.

World Politics Review (Estados Unidos)


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