China’s space diplomacy in Latin America: Partners for its Lunar station

China’s space diplomacy in Latin America: Partners for its Lunar station


30 | 01 | 2024


Argentina is committed to the US-led Artemis program, but it has been simultaneously expanding its collaboration with Beijing

En la imagen

A computer rendition fo the China-Argentina Radio Telescope in construction in San Juan Province [CART]

Along with China's commercial penetration in Latin America—in search of raw materials and as a market for its products—China has also deployed space diplomacy in the region, aimed at increasing Beijing’s influence in the world and bringing together a growing number of countries around itself in its rivalry with the United States. Several Latin American countries have managed to place satellites into orbit thanks to China; Venezuela has just joined the Lunar station project promoted by Beijing as an alternative to the Artemis program led by Washington, and China is building a Radio Telescope in Argentina enhancing its space activities in the country.

Out of all the industries that China is interested in expanding using soft power, the space one is especially appealing. By expanding in this sector China is looking for prestige and recognition, presenting itself as a technologically and scientifically advanced superpower, and at the same time it gets the economic and strategic advantages derived from the installation of satellite networks and space-based solar power. But most of all, Chinese leaders view space as a pivotal playing field in geopolitical competition, given the appearance of the first signs of weaponization of outer space. Therefore, the space sector is seen as strictly linked to the military one.

The Latin American countries prove themselves to be the perfect playground for Chinese aspirations. China exploits Latin America’s economic conditions and need for investments to insert itself in the region and agrees to treaties that will benefit Beijing in the long term, especially in terms of extra-terrestrial initiatives. Not to talk about the fact that pacting with Latin American countries for space purposes proves to be a power move given their geographic proximity to the US, China’s greatest rival in the international sphere.

In the last decade, China has opened Earth’s orbit and sub orbit to three Latin American Countries—Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia—; has established a strategic deep space base in Argentina, crucial for all Chinese satellite network—civil and military—due to the previous lack of a major space base in the southern hemisphere, and is now recruiting partners for its International Lunar Research Station project, its alternative to Project Artemis led by the United States. Venezuela has been the first country to sign a cooperation protocol in relation with the Chinese Lunar station.

Venezuela and co.

In 2008, Hugo Chavez saw the first satellite with a Venezuelan flag going into space. The Venesat 1 communications satellite, named as ‘Simon Bolivar’, was made by China and a Chinese rocket put it into orbit from a Chinese launch site. The VRSS 1 remote sensing craft with the name of ‘Francisco de Miranda’ was launched in 2012, and the VRSS 2 ‘Antonio José de Sucre’ for inspection of land resources, environmental protection and prevention of seismic movements was placed into orbit in 20117, both manufactured and launched by China as well.

Other ‘Bolivarian’ countries got the same help from Beijing. In 2013, China placed into orbit a satellite for Ecuador and another for Bolivia. The three main Latin American powers—Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina—also received external assistance (from the US and from Europe) to put into operation their first satellites in the 1980s; since then, they have manufactured their own satellites although they need someone else to take them into space, normally by US or European rockets, but sometimes by Russian and, less frequently, by Chinese rockets as well. Argentina has 38 satellites in operation, Brazil 21, Mexico 13, and Chile 7. China shares three satellites with Brazil.

Venezuela has been the first country to join the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) project promoted by China. Initially conceived as a collaboration with Russia, now China intents to use the ILRS as a unifier of nations around itself, like the US is doing with the Artemis program for moon exploration and building of a permanent Lunar base. Both projects could attract countries following rivalry lines: actually, the main Western space agencies are working with NASA in the Artemis program; at the same time that Venezuela signed its cooperation with China, Germany signed the Artemis Accords.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Bolivarian Agency for Space Activities (ABAE) agreed in July 2023 to carry out extensive and in-depth cooperation in the demonstration, engineering implementation, operation and application of the ILRS. Venezuela will make its satellite control ground station infrastructure available for Lunar missions. President Nicolás Maduro sold the news as if Venezuela were about to send a national astronaut to the Moon.

What less developed countries can offer to China in space technology has to be seen, but at least they may host space tracking bases or perhaps accommodate better-placed launch sites (at the equator or near to it). The interest for allocating signals posts in specific strategic places around the globe has already been pursued by China, which has ground stations for communicating to its fleet of satellites in Venezuela (from 2008), Bolivia (2013), Peru (2015), and Argentina (2016), and is opening other two in Antarctica, apart from having access to facilities in Brazil and Chile. Similarly, Russia has a network of antennas for Glonass, its satellite navigation system, in some Latin American countries, like Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, and Cuba. In any case, China’s and Russia’s space facilities are numbered by the US stations.


When it comes to China’s space strategy in Latin America Argentina occupies a prominent place, which is surprising due to the commitment of the Austral country to the Artemis project development (other Latin American signatories of the Artemis Accords are Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador.)

Over the last two decades, China has been working to establish a strong diplomatic and economic relation with Argentina. Such a relationship, based on Argentina’s financial difficulties, has created a foundation for Chinese investment and cooperation with the South American country in a variety of industries, such as the space one, which eventually culminated in 2014. During this year, after years of Chinese technical and financial support for Argentine satellites, President Kirchner’s administration signed a secretive agreement for China to establish and operate a deep space station in the province of Neuquén, designed to support and monitor rover missions to explore, collect, and return with Lunar soil samples, while additionally allowing China to increase the frequency of communication with all of its satellites, since ground stations communicate with them more easily. The agreement also established that the Neuquén premises were restricted to Argentina’s sovereign control, provided tax exemptions and, most importantly, was run by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Chinese military.

This last point has raised suspicions, especially in the US, about the possibility that the base is used to spy and surveil the Western Hemisphere, an argument backed up by the secrecy that surrounds the whole base. In 2016, during the Macri administration, a protocol was negotiated by which it was guaranteed that the base would have only civil use. But US officials keep denouncing the Neuquén deep space station as aa form of Chinese infiltration. In fact, very little are the news coming from the base and its activities, which remain covered by an air of extreme secrecy from both parts, bound by an article of the agreement which states that information will only be dispensed if both parties agree to it.

Washington is alerting as well about the China-Argentina Radio Telescope (CART), which has been assembling over the last weeks. The telescope is built in San Juan Province; when completed it will be the largest radio telescope in South America.

Despite this collaboration, Argentine private space industry seems to be taking distance from China. Considering the growing business opportunities that the New Space era has opened almost everywhere, companies may be reluctant to be too tied to China. A CSIS report underlined the move by Satellogic, Argentina’s most developed satellite technology company, which took part in Chinese space programs and is now disengaging itself from Chinese networks. The Milei administration would push in the same direction.