China to Lose Access to Western Australian Satellite Tracking Station, Beijing Downplays Significance

On September 23, China’s state-run Global Times sought to downplay a recent decision not to renew Beijing’s access to a strategic Western Australian satellite tracking station.  On September 21, Reuters reported that Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) would not renew a 2011 contract with China’s space program that allows Beijing’s BeiDou navigation system access to the Yatharagga ground tracking station.

SSC’s non-renewal would reportedly cut Beijing’s satellite navigation capabilities in the Pacific region. Via the Global Times, however, Beijing asserts that there are at least 10 years left on the current contract.  It was earlier reported that SSC refused to disclose the contract’s expiration date.

Rising geopolitical tensions have raised questions about the dual-use implications of Beijing’s growing satellite navigation capability that is underpinned by its efforts to develop and gain access to overseas satellite tracking stations.

Although China has denied that they use services from Swedish Space Corporation for any military purposes, other recent Chinese overseas space sector forays have raised similar concerns. China’s operation of a ground state in Argentina’s Patagonia region, for example, continues to raise questions about its potential dual-use military purposes. The site was constructed by China Harbour Engineering Corporation in 2012 for deep space study. Since completion, the station has faced allegations that it is operated by Chinese military personnel under terms agreed by China and Argentina that effectively offered China free reign over the station’s operational management and provided little access to Argentinian officials for oversight.

China also pointed in the Global Times to past use of the ground station on the island nation Kiribati, which observers have speculated could become useful again to Beijing in terms of providing coverage to the Pacific (especially if access is lost elsewhere). Notably, in September 2019, China restored diplomatic relations with Kiribati following more than a decade of severed ties.