China’s Space Build Up in America’s ‘Backyard’

China's antenna in Argentina
China’s antenna at Espacio Lejano in Argentina. Image: CONAE (Argentina National Space Activities Commission)

Sen. Joni Ernst raised concerns about China’s growing space footprint “in our backyard,” which could increase the PRC’s ability to track and spy on American satellites in orbit.

There are 11 space facilities linked to the PRC in South America – more than any other geographic combatant command, Gen. Laura Richardson, the head of U.S. Southern Command, told senators at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. 

“While China is our pacing threat and we focus on [the Pacific,] we have to recognize they are in this hemisphere as well,” Ernst said at the hearing. “They are building space facilities…and they are in our backyard.”

The risks

Richardson said having ground stations and other space facilities outside the Chinese mainland will let Beijing better track its own satellites. But that allows the PRC to conduct better surveillance of American satellites as well. 

“It’s always under supposed research and development….The concern is maybe it’s not,” she said. 

DoD’s response

The military is doing all it can to discourage cooperation with the PRC, Richardson told senators, including talking with partners in the region about “responsible space operations” and hosting officials from 11 nations this year at the first Space Conference of the Americas.

But the Pentagon can’t force countries to stop working with China, and in some cases, that message seems to be falling on deaf ears. For example, Argentina provides little to no oversight of China’s Espacio Lejano ground station on its western border, and the contract between the two nations explicitly says Argentina will “not interfere [with] or interrupt” China’s activities there, according to a CSIS report