China Using Space to Further Geopolitical Goals

Completing our look at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2019 Report to Congress, we examine how China is using its space program to achieve the nation’s geopolitical and economic goals. [Full Report]

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

China is using its growing space program to achieve a range of geopolitical and economic goals, including attracting partners for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), improving economic and political ties with other countries, and deepening others’ reliance on its space systems and data services.

“Beijing views its space program as key to elevating its leadership profile in international space cooperation, including through BRI, and establishing a dominant position in the commercial space industry,” according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2019 Report to Congress.

China’s space strategy is closely tied to BRI, which is a global development strategy involving strategic and infrastructure investments in nations around the world designed to closely tie them to the Chinese economy and enhance the country’s global leadership.

The BRI Space Information Corridor — also known as the Space Silk Road — would use communications, remote sensing, and Beidou navigation satellites to connect the countries involved when completed in the late 2020’s.

“The project is further intended to improve China’s industrial high-tech cooperation with BRI countries, accelerate the ‘going out’ of China’s space industry and increase the competitiveness of Chinese space firms, promote the image of China as a responsible big country by facilitating humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and increase the level of marketization and internationalization of China’s space information industry,” the report stated.

China has been signing an increasing number of cooperative agreements with developed and developing nations across the globe.

“As of April 2018, China claimed it had signed 121 space cooperation agreements with 37 countries and four international organizations, which it uses to help promote BRI and develop China’s space leadership in the Indo-Pacific,” the document added.

China founded the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) in 2008 as its primary vehicle for space cooperation in the region. Members include Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey.

“Dues-paying APSCO member are granted access to Chinese space training, ground stations, and satellite development projects. In return, China gains international prestige, promotes the export of its technology and services, and gains access to supplementary data and geographic coverage for its space situational awareness,” the commission found.

China’s Beidou satellite navigation system is a “vital component” of Beijing’s space diplomacy as the rival to America’s Global Positioning System (GPS) gains increasing acceptance around the world.

Note: As of June 28, 2019. Adapted from Kazuhiro Kida and Shinichi Hashimoto, “China’s Version of GPS Now Has More Satellites than US Original,” Nikkei Asian Review, August 19, 2019.

“China has used it as a tool of geopolitical and diplomatic competition which would deepen users’ reliance on China for space-based services, potentially at the expense of U.S. Influence,” the report stated. “After Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally, was granted access to Beidou in 2013, for instance, a Beidou expert from Wuhan University who participated in the negotiations with the Thai government claimed Beijing’s goal was to show that Beidou ‘can do anything GPS does in some areas it can do even better. If Thailand can embrace Beidou, other countries may follow, and the [United States’] . . . power in the region will be reduced.’”

The commission also noted that China has succeeded in expanding its network of ground stations around the world.

“In 2001, China and Sweden signed an agreement for mutual access to each other’s tracking networks. Beijing dismantled its facility after Kiribati switched recognition to Taiwan in 2003 but currently operates satellite tracking stations in Chile, Sweden, Australia, Namibia, Pakistan, and Kenya. In 2015, Beijing secured a deal for a much larger and more capable satellite and space mission control center in Patagonia, Argentina,” the report said.

China has said the Patagonia tracking station is part of its deep space network for communicating with scientific spacecraft. However, the Argentine government has little insight into the actual functions of the station, which is under the control of an arm of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army that is in charge of “telemetry, tracking, and command of Chinese military space missions as well as counterspace activities.

“Experts assert the facility operates with virtually no transparency and could be used to collect intelligence on satellites, missile launches, and drone movements, and to interfere with or compromise communications, electronic networks, and electromagnetic systems in the Western Hemisphere,” the report stated.

China is also lining up partners to fly to or conduct experiments on its permanent space station, whose elements will begin launching in 2021. European astronauts have trained in China, and international research projects have been lined up.

“In June 2019, the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs and the China Manned Space Agency announced six experiments from institutions in 17 countries had received approval for inclusion on the China Space Station and three others had received conditional approval, and the two organizations confirmed they would invite applications for a second group of experiments,” the report stated.

An excerpt from the report follows.

Space Program Supports Geopolitical and Economic Goals China

Cultivates Clients for the New Space Economy

China has established plans to dominate the space economy of the future, but it also views its space goals as intrinsically linked with its geopolitical ambitions on Earth. In particular, Beijing views its space program as key to elevating its leadership profile in international space cooperation, including through BRI [Belt and Road Initiative], and establishing a dominant position in the commercial space industry.

In 2008, China founded the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), its primary vehicle for international space cooperation, in which it offers to share its space expertise with less advanced members. Dues-paying APSCO member are granted access to Chinese space training, ground stations, and satellite development projects.

In return, China gains international prestige, promotes the export of its technology and services, and gains access to supplementary data and geographic coverage for its space situational awareness. China also seeks to cooperate with advanced spacefaring countries and market its expertise by selling its technology to less-advanced countries.

As of April 2018, China claimed it had signed 121 space cooperation agreements with 37 countries and four international organizations, which it uses to help promote BRI and develop China’s space leadership in the Indo-Pacific.* According to a 2016 address by then CNSA [China National Space Administration] Administrator Xu Dazhe, all APSCO members had “reached broad consensus” on BRI’s role as a framework for helping facilitate space capacity-building in the Indo-Pacific region, highlighting the degree to which China has linked space initiatives with its broader foreign policy.

In his testimony, [Todd] Harrison [a senior space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies] cited China’s ability to leverage participation in its civil space program to strengthen its terrestrial partnerships; for instance, some countries may be willing to support China’s political priorities in exchange for a chance to carry out low-gravity research in the future China Space Station.

In September 2019, China and Russia announced their intent to cooperate in developing Russia’s future Luna-26 lunar orbiter, China’s Chang’e-7 lunar polar lander, and a joint lunar and deep space data center with a hub in each country, demonstrating the extension of the two countries’ cooperation to space research and exploration (for more on China-Russia relations, see Chapter 4, Section 2: An Uneasy Entente: China-Russia Relations in a New Era of Strategic Competition with the United States”).

The China Space Station positions Beijing to leverage its presence in space into diplomatic and scientific gains. Mr. Harrison contended that China might offer other countries the opportunity to conduct crewed missions to the China Space Station and later to the moon or even Mars as incentives to cooperate with China’s priorities on Earth.

According to Bleddyn Bowen, a space expert at the University of Leicester, opening the China Space Station to international participants is part of China’s effort to establish itself as a U.S. rival in space and to demonstrate that countries can stimulate their space technology sectors without relying on the United States.

In June 2019, the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs and the China Manned Space Agency announced six experiments from institutions in 17 countries had received approval for inclusion on the China Space Station and three others had received conditional approval, and the two organizations confirmed they would invite applications for a second group of experiments.**

If the International Space Station—which carries experiments selected by each participating country’s space agency—is not extended beyond 2024, and a planned small U.S.-built station in lunar orbit is delayed, China may be the only country to have an active space station.†

Citing the planned retirement of the International Space Station, Charles Bolden, former administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), told the Commission that even if China’s intent is not to replace the United States, Beijing is slowly doing it by default.

The Beidou global navigation satellite system is another vital component of China’s space diplomacy, figuring prominently in BRI as part of the so-called Space Silk Road. Although Beidou is free to users, similar to the U.S.-built Global Positioning System (GPS), China has used it as a tool of geopolitical and diplomatic competition which would deepen users’ reliance on China for space-based services, potentially at the expense of U.S. influence.

After Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally, was granted access to Beidou in 2013, for instance, a Beidou expert from Wuhan University who participated in the negotiations with the Thai government claimed Beijing’s goal was to show that Beidou “can do anything GPS does [and] in some areas it can do even better. If Thailand can embrace Beidou, other countries may follow, and the [United States’] . . . power in the region will be reduced.” ‡

Following a 2013 agreement, Pakistan was the first partner country to be granted access to Beidou’s restricted high-precision signal for military use, a model for Beidou’s expansion which the New York Times reported China could extend to other BRI participants.

Note: As of June 28, 2019. Adapted from Kazuhiro Kida and Shinichi Hashimoto, “China’s Version of GPS Now Has More Satellites than US Original,” Nikkei Asian Review, August 19, 2019.

Chinese state media have praised the Arab world’s progress in adopting Beidou, which has included the Arab League’s and Chinese government’s joint establishment of a center of excellence in Tunis to promote the system.

China has also promoted a plan to use existing satellites with a tailor-made data-sharing network to contribute to the development of BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia India, China, and South Africa), and in January 2019 China established a new remote sensing satellite data center in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, that it has billed as part of its Maritime Silk Road, the maritime component of BRI.

The Nikkei Asian Review reported in August 2019 that as of late June not only had the Beidou constellation exceeded that of GPS in size, but Beidou satellites were more frequently observable than GPS satellites in 130 of 195 UN member countries and also more frequently visible in more than 100 of the 137 BRI participant countries.

Beijing has also linked its space program with its ambitions to lead terrestrial digital connectivity. The powerful State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) and the National Development and Reform Commission have issued plans to use communications, remote sensing, and navigation satellites to complete the construction of a BRI Space Information Corridor—another name for the Space Silk Road—by the late 2020s.

A 2016 guiding opinion issued by the two agencies found that China’s space cooperation agreements had established strong governmental and commercial mechanisms with dozens of countries participating in BRI but that China’s satellite technology still required improvement—a shortcoming the construction of the BRI Space Information Corridor now aims to resolve.

The project is further intended to improve China’s industrial high-tech cooperation with BRI countries, accelerate the “going out” of China’s space industry and increase the competitiveness of Chinese space firms, promote the image of China as a responsible big country by facilitating humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,+ and increase the level of marketization and internationalization of China’s space information industry.

A future space-based solar power network might also become part of the Space Silk Road, which has the potential to “dramatically deepen” China’s influence over participants, according to Australian Strategic Policy Institute expert Malcolm Davis.

Expanding Global Network of Ground Stations

Beijing has had some success expanding its space tracking and observation capabilities through partnerships established through its space-related diplomacy, which it has used to advance both its space capabilities and geopolitical influence.

In recent years, China has also used these partnerships to extend its overseas military presence. Whereas China largely was forced to rely on deploying expensive communications ships to track spacecraft in orbits not visible from Chinese territory in the 1970s, beginning in 1997 it began efforts to emulate a U.S.-style network of overseas tracking stations by opening its first overseas ground station on a Kiribati-owned atoll in the Pacific Islands.

In 2001, China and Sweden signed an agreement for mutual access to each other’s tracking networks. Beijing dismantled its facility after Kiribati switched recognition to Taiwan in 2003 but currently operates satellite tracking stations in Chile, Sweden, Australia, Namibia, Pakistan, and Kenya. In 2015, Beijing secured a deal for a much larger and more capable satellite and space mission control center in Patagonia, Argentina.

The space control center in Argentina, which Beijing gained approval to construct and operate at a time when Argentina was deeply indebted to China, represents a significant expansion of China’s ability to track and control space assets via a global network of ground stations and may represent a new model for Chinese overseas basing.

In 2015, it was reported that China planned to allow Argentina to use up to ten percent of the station’s antenna time and grant it access to imagery from China’s surveillance satellites. Former Argentine foreign minister Susanna Malcorra, however, claimed in 2019 Argentina has no “physical oversight” of the station, though Argentine officials have sought—so far without success—to gain more insight into its operations.

China maintains the purpose of the base, which it began constructing in 2013 before Argentina granted official approval and which became operational in early 2018, is to support deep space exploration and other civilian space activities, including during the December 2018 landing of the Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the moon.

However, as a result of the merger of the former China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General with other space-related military organizations in 2015, the base is operated by the Space Systems Department of the Strategic Support Force—the part of the PLA responsible for telemetry, tracking, and command of Chinese military space missions as well as counterspace activities.

Experts assert the facility operates with virtually no transparency and could be used to collect intelligence on satellites, missile launches, and drone movements, and to interfere with or compromise communications, electronic networks, and electromagnetic systems in the Western Hemisphere.

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* APSCO members include Bangladesh, China, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey. The Chinese government has not made publicly available a full list detailing all of these agreements or identifying partnering countries. A selection of bilateral agreements it has publicized include an Outline of China-Russia Space Cooperation from 2013 to 2017 through the mechanism of a bilateral Space Cooperation Subcommittee; an Outline of China-European Space Agency Space Cooperation from 2015 to 2020 within the framework of the China-Europe Joint Commission on Space Cooperation; and the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite program. Multilateral agreements include a memorandum of understanding signed between CNSA and the UN on Earth Observation Data and Technical Support; support to the activities of the Beijing office of the UN Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response; and participation in the APSCO Joint Small Multi-mission Satellite Constellation Program. Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, “Member States,” February 20, 2019; State Council Information Office, China’s Space Activities in 2016, December 27, 2016.

** The 17 countries are Belgium, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, Norway, Mexico, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Switzerland. The approved experiments cover astronomy, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion, space medicine, and the conditionally approved experiments cover Earth observation and space technology. UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, “United Nations/China Cooperation on the Utilization of the China Space Station (CSS),” June 12, 2019, 1–6.

† The United States and Russia produced each of the foundational segments of the International Space Station. The United States provides roughly three quarters of the funding to manage the U.S. Orbital Segment, with the rest provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (12.8 percent), the European Space Agency (8.3 percent), and the Canadian Space Agency (2.3 percent), while Russia entirely funds the Russian Orbital Segment; the U.S. segment hosts rotations of three to four astronauts from NASA and its three partners, compared to the Russian segment’s complement of two to three cosmonauts. Without continued funding from the United States or the introduction of new funding from the private sector, continued operations of the U.S. Segment would likely no longer be feasible. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Office of Inspector General, NASA’s Management and Utilization of the International Space Station, July 30, 2018, 2, 5–6.

‡ The agreement with Thailand included establishing three continuously operating reference stations in Thailand for Beidou, which are ground-based components to improve the network’s accuracy. Xinhua, “China’s BeiDou System to Expand Cooperation to SE Asia,” April 1, 2017.

+ For more on China’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, see Matthew Southerland, “The Chinese Military’s Role in Overseas Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief: Contributions and Concerns,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, July 11, 2019.