China’s growing space program in Latin America concerns U.S. Pentagon

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EL ALTO, Bolivia — On a plateau 13,000 feet above sea level in the Bolivian Andes, llama herders and Indigenous farmers share the sparse landscape with an unusual neighbor: a towering cluster of Chinese-built satellite dishes.

The Amachuma Ground Station exchanges data 24 hours a day with Bolivia’s only state-owned satellite, Tupac Katari I, which orbits some 22,300 miles above Latin America. The remote ground station has another, largely invisible, use: It allows Beijing to surveil skies 10,000 miles from China, according to officials from the Bolivian space agency and Chinese scientists and company officials familiar with the program.

The Pentagon is increasingly concerned that China’s growing network of facilities in Latin America and Antarctica for its civilian space and satellite programs has defense capabilities. U.S. officials say the ground stations — which allow countries to maintain uninterrupted communication with satellites and other space vehicles — have the potential to expand Beijing’s global military surveillance network in the southern hemisphere and areas close to the United States.

China already has over 700 satellites in orbit, with plans to expand that number exponentially in the coming years a project that requires a global constellation of terrestrial facilities to track and communicate with them as they pass over different parts of the planet.

Apart from two ground stations in Bolivia, opened in 2013, China built space facilities in Venezuela in 2008, Peru in 2015, Argentina in 2016 and has at least two stations under construction in Antarctica. It has additional access to facilities in Brazil and Chile through research partnerships. This infrastructure fills a key geographical gap for Beijing’s space program, allowing China to track and communicate with its growing fleet of satellites and space vehicles while also potentially surveilling other state’s assets as they pass over the southern hemisphere.

Ground stations are a critical piece of terrestrial space infrastructure, performing what is called telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) functions, meaning they are able to track or communicate with the vast web of satellites and space vehicles that fill the sky. They are key to delivering commercial services, including internet connectivity, Earth imaging and the monitoring of civilian space research vehicles.

Students check out a model of a Venezuelan communication satellite during a trip to the Bolivian Space Agency, the country’s national space agency, in La Paz Department, Bolivia.

Ground stations can also play an important role in national security. They facilitate military communications, track missile launches, surveil the space assets of other countries and can play a role in jamming, interfering with or potentially destroying enemy satellites. The importance of satellite networks in war has been underscored since 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.

China’s international space facilities are still far outnumbered by U.S. stations, but the Latin American and Antarctic sites are just one segment in a growing Chinese global space infrastructure, forged mostly in countries with close diplomatic ties to Beijing.

The Chinese state firm behind Bolivia’s ground stations has, since 2008, built similar projects in Laos, Pakistan, Nigeria and Belarus, while other space-tracking facilities linked to the People’s Liberation Army include sites in Namibia and Kenya. China also maintains a fleet of mobile space support ships that, according to the Pentagon, are used to track satellite and ICBM launches.

This summer, Chinese state media said national records were broken when 67 satellites were launched within just nine days in June. 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.

“Their on-orbit armada of satellites can track us, can sense us, can see us … and can now hold U.S. forces at risk in a way we have never understood or had to face to date,” said Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Gagnon, deputy chief of space operations for intelligence at the U.S. Space Force, speaking at the Air and Space Forces Association Warfare symposium in March.

Gagnon said that around half of China’s 700 satellites are used for remote sensing and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes, meaning they are equipped to gather sensitive security data.

Ties to Chinese military

A model prototype of Bolivia’s only state-owned satellite, Tupac Katari I, stands is displayed at the Bolivian Space Agency. The satellite was funded by a $250 million China Development Bank loan.

At the time of its launch in 2013, the Tupac Katari I satellite — named after a famed Bolivian revolutionary and funded by a $250 million China Development Bank loan — represented something unthinkable to many Bolivians: the prestige of a national space program, connectivity for the country’s remote rural communities and a specialized military communications bandwidth.

But almost 10 years later, the promise of Bolivia’s revolutionary leap into space has faded. While Tupac Katari I has driven more connectivity in remote areas, plans to use the project as a launchpad for the country’s own space industry have been scuttled by economic woes. Much of the Chinese loan remains outstanding, with Tupac Katari I set to be retired into a deep space graveyard within five years.

The ground stations have proved useful as one of several Latin American facilities accessible to China.

Satellite monitoring screens are displayed at the Bolivian Space Agency.

“We have rented it to the Chinese to control the launch of [their] other satellites,” said Iván Zambrana, director general of Agencia Boliviana Espacial, the Bolivian space agency, speaking from the expansive glass-fronted building that overlooks the dishes — a glitzy perk of the Chinese loan package.

Zambrana said that under the contracts, Chinese technicians travel to Bolivia about once a year to access the base, usually via a secondary ground station that communicates with Amachuma from the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. From there, they are able to install technology and track other assets in space. One Chinese technician said Beijing is able to remotely access a number of the overseas stations, including those in Bolivia and Venezuela. “Those agreements were done with the permission of partner governments,” said the technician who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Beijing is not alone in building space TT&C facilities abroad, most of which have legitimate civilian uses, and the country maintains its ground stations in Latin America and Antarctica are used exclusively for peaceful purposes. What sets China’s international commercial space program apart is its close links to the military. The contractors behind China’s space technology — including most of the Latin American and Antarctic facilities — are also the leading state-owned powerhouses behind the missile development, cyberwarfare and counter space defense programs of the People’s Liberation Army.

Iván Zambrana, director general of Agencia Boliviana Espacial, the Bolivian space agency.

“All of the [Chinese] agencies that are involved in the information and the data collection at these places are tied back in one way or the other to the Chinese government or to the Chinese military,” said Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has studied the expansion of Chinese ground stations in Latin America and Antarctica.

“The way to think about it is, if these sites are or could collect data that is beneficial to the PLA, and the PLA wants it, it’s going to get it,” he said.

‘A security risk’

Police and emergency-response services in Bolivia’s cities are equipped with Chinese-made surveillance systems through a project launched in 2019.

Beijing has set a goal to become a world-leading space power by 2045 — a program that lays out ambitious targets in national security as well as civilian projects, including a plan to send crewed spacecraft to the moon by 2030 and develop nuclear-powered space shuttles by 2040. Spearheading Beijing’s race toward space supremacy are a cluster of state-owned firms that are either direct units of the PLA or military contractors. Others are private or state enterprises that are part of Beijing’s military-civil fusion program, a national strategic policy drive by the Chinese Communist Party to enrich the military with civilian-developed technologies.

The technology behind China’s space program — including the facilities in Latin America and Antarctica — is dominated by two state-owned enterprises: the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC). Both firms originated in the PLA, before being spun off into major state-owned enterprises, and remain top suppliers to the country’s military. CASC, according to company documents, is the country’s sole manufacturer of intercontinental nuclear missiles, as well as a top contractor of military space technology, drones and launch systems.

CASIC describes itself as the “backbone” of China’s aerospace industry, overseeing the development of cruise and ballistic missiles among a vast range of other projects. “CASIC takes ‘empowering the military’ as its first duty and ‘building China into a space power’ as its own responsibility,” according to a description on its website.

A woman walks by a store in El Alto selling Tup4K antennas. With the Tup4K satellite kit, it is possible to receive digital radio and TV signals broadcast from the Tupac Katari satellite.

Towering over a remote plain in Patagonia, Argentina, is the largest Chinese-made space facility in Latin America. A 35-meter-wide satellite dish at the Espacio Lejano Ground Station is operated by the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), according to a 2023 Pentagon report and two people who work for a Chinese-state space group and are familiar with the project’s operation. The SSF is the military unit that oversees the PLA’s space, cyber and electronic warfare programs.

Under a contract signed between the two countries, Argentina’s government agreed not to “interfere or interrupt” China’s activities at the ground-station facility.

In Venezuela, a Chinese state-owned company launched a satellite and built two ground stations — the largest of which is located inside Venezuela’s Capitán Manuel Ríos Airbase, a military airport in the country’s central north. The company, China Great Wall Industry Corp. (CGWIC), is the sole entity authorized to provide commercial satellite technology to international partners and is a wholly owned subsidiary of CASC.

The CGWIC also built the ground station in Bolivia and is the group that liaises with Bolivia’s space agency to conduct projects from its Andean base station.

Aymara woman Lucia Aruquipa walks toward her house, equipped with a Tup4K antenna, in Patamanta, a small, rural community in Bolivia.

Almost 6,200 miles south, a ground station antenna under construction at China’s Zhongshan base in Antarctica is being built by CASIC, according to Chinese state media. Another Chinese ground station under construction on the remote Antarctic outcrop of Inexpressible Island has drawn concerns from the Pentagon that it could “provide the PLA with better surveillance capabilities … well positioned to collect signals intelligence over Australia and New Zealand,” according to the Defense Department report released last month on military threats posed by China.

Map showing locations of Inexpressible Island and Zhongshan base

The Chinese technician who previously worked as a contractor on overseas projects for the CGWIC told The Washington Post that the lines between civilian and military are fluid in the state-owned firm and in China’s broader international space partnerships.

“They are the same, the same staff … military and civilian, you know in China there is no difference, this is the condition of our country’s space industry,” said the person. “The United States, Western countries, also do this type of work in secret conditions. Why not China?”

The CGWIC did not respond to a request for comment. CASC and CASIC did not respond to emails and calls to their Beijing headquarters.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington told The Post that he could not comment on specific country partnerships, but said Beijing is “for peaceful use of outer space.”

Spokesman Liu Pengyu said China is against the “weaponization” of space technology and does not support an “arms race” in outer space. “We promote an outer space community with shared future for mankind,” he said. Liu pointed to China’s cooperation with Brazil, using satellites to surveil earth resources, weather and other civilian applications as evidence of China’s successful role in the region’s space industry.

The Chinese Embassy in Bolivia did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about the potential for China to use the CGWIC base for military purposes, Zambrana, director of the Bolivian space agency, dismissed the idea. “Go look for yourself,” he said, gesturing toward the nearby Amachuma Ground Station. “You won’t see any military.”

Rogelio Mayta, who spoke to The Post while serving as foreign minister in October, a role he stepped down from last week, said that Bolivia is alert to the potential of satellite technology being militarized, but feels it is unavoidable, and that the benefits to Bolivians outweigh those concerns. “We have to live with that potential reality and the aerospace capabilities of the great powers,” he said. “We know that it can imply a security risk.”

Filling gaps where U.S. was absent

Pedestrians stroll by surveillance cameras that monitor downtown La Paz.

Beijing’s expanding space presence in Latin America has been carved along diplomatic lines, finding success in countries where relations with the United States and its allies have faltered.

As discussions on the formation of Bolivia’s space agency were underway in 2009, the country’s relations with the United States were at a crisis point.

President Evo Morales leveled sweeping accusations that the CIA was plotting against his government. Months earlier, he had expelled the U.S. ambassador and officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, accusing them of conspiracy, charges the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia called “absurd.”

At the time, Beijing was not deeply engaged in the country, which was emerging from an economically turbulent decade, but over the next 12 years it would become the country’s top international financier and infrastructure collaborator. In 2017, Bolivia’s vice president said the country would receive a $7 billion credit line from Beijing for infrastructure projects, double the country’s external debt at the time. This year, amid a severe shortage of U.S. dollars, Bolivia began trading in China’s currency, the yuan.

With the loans came expanded access for Chinese companies to the country’s vast natural resources, including lithium, and Bolivia obtained other advanced technology. In 2019, for instance, Bolivia launched the Bol-110 project, equipping police and emergency-response services in the country’s cities with Chinese-made surveillance systems.

When Beijing floated the $250 million loan for the Tupac Katari I satellite project, Bolivian space agency officials said the Chinese proposal was not only more comprehensive than alternative bids, but also represented a welcome alternative from what they perceived to be patronizing treatment from American and European space suppliers who were in contact with Bolivia at the time.

“There was an air of superiority in Americans and Europeans when dealing with Bolivia,” said Zambrana, who has headed the space agency since its inception in 2010, only stepping away from the role when an interim government took power for a year following a political crisis in 2019.

Police in La Paz monitor the public with Chinese-built cameras in a video surveillance room.

Within 10 months of the founding of the Bolivian space agency, the government signed a contract with the CGWIC for a package that included two ground stations and the Tupac Katari I satellite. As part of the agreement, Bolivia sent 64 scientists to study satellite technology at Beihang University, China’s top civilian and military aerospace university. They then continued their training alongside Chinese engineers at the newly constructed ground stations back in Bolivia.

“In general, there’s been a recognition over the last 10 years that the U.S. needed to up its soft power game to counter some of this,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation and an expert in space security. “What China was doing was filling in the gaps where the U.S. was not focused.”

Bolivian officials maintain they aren’t wedded to China as their sole space contractor and are actively considering other countries for future projects. They do, however, resent the idea that they would be forced to choose between the West and China.

“We don’t want to be told that we are with God or with the devil,” said Mayta, the former foreign minister. “That is, we believe that we can have a position open to everyone,” he said.

Supremacy in space technologies

Students pet a stray dog while visiting the Bolivian Space Agency at the Amachuma Ground Station amid a cluster of Chinese-made satellite dishes.

In Bolivia, while relations remain strong with China, much of the hype around the original space collaboration has faded. Plans for a second, Chinese funded, Earth-imaging satellite announced by the Morales government in 2017 and lauded for its potential to capture detailed data on the country’s land use, have been shelved indefinitely — deemed too costly.

Elsewhere in Latin America, other countries have continued to buy into a more ambitious vision of a China-led future in space. Venezuela — since its initial pact with the CGWIC in 2008 — has moved ahead with two further Chinese satellites. In September, it became the first Latin American country to formally join the China-led International Lunar Research Station project.

Despite the country’s cratering economy, President Nicolás Maduro vowed during a September state visit to Beijing that he would send “the first Venezuelan man or woman to the moon” with the help of China.

Among Pentagon documents leaked on the Discord chat platform in the spring was one that contained a stark assessment of China’s satellite capabilities in the southern hemisphere. It said the satellites were sophisticated beyond previous estimates, and Beijing already holds the ability to track, jam or destroy U.S. and allied satellites that would collect critical intelligence in the Indo-Pacific in the event of war in Taiwan.

“The PRC’s overall military strategy to establish and maintain information dominance in a conflict drives Beijing’s development of space,” it said.

About this story

Story by Cate Cadell. Photos by Marcelo Perez del Carpio. Story editing by Peter Finn. Project editing by Courtney Kan. Photo editing by Jennifer Samuel. Design and development by Kat Rudell-Brooks and Yutao Chen. Maps by Cate Brown and Laris Karklis. Design editing by Joe Moore. Copy editing by Susan Doyle.

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