China May Lose its Space Station in Australia

In an exclusive report by Reuters, China will be barred from accessing one of the highly strategic space tracking stations in Western Australia once the contract gets expired. The decision was announced by the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), the owner of the station, reflecting upon the new development of geopolitical situations related to China. This move is certainly going to limit Beijing’s plan for expanding space exploration and navigational capabilities in the Pacific region.

Over the last few months, the relationship between China and Australia has turned sour that brought a drastic change in many bilateral issues ranging from diplomatic to trade ties. This could be another major impact of the existing conflicts between Washington and Beijing as the United States (US) has been urging its allies to stop supplying or providing technology to China.

Currently, Australia has a strong alliance with the US and both countries have been in several ventures including working together on space research and programs. Australia has been providing platforms for the US space exploration and other scientific programs for its agencies including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).   

Limiting Beijing Access to Pacific

The Swedish state-owned company and Beijing entered a contract in 2011 that allowed the latter country to access to the satellite antenna at the ground station in Western Australia. As per the SSC statement, the current contract would help Chinese scientific space missions, which include manned-space flights for telemetry, tracking, and command services. The statement continued that China used the Yatharagga Satellite Station, located about 350 km (250 miles) north of the Australian city of Perth, for its space docking program, which was completed in June 2013.

However, the Swedish state-owned company told Reuters that it would not extend the existing contract with the China government once the current contract got expired, though it was not disclosed when the contract will be over. Last year, Beijing re-established diplomatic ties with the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where it has a ground station in the central Pacific Ocean, expanding its access to the Pacific.

In an emailed response to Reuters’ questions, the SSC said “Given the complexity of the Chinese market brought about by the overall geopolitical the situation, SSC has decided to focus mainly on other markets for the coming years.”

Emerging Pressure from the US

Canberra’s diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing have started falling apart due to the emerging conflicts between the two besides the strong pressure to the largest pacific country from Washington. The expansion of China’s space capabilities and access to the Pacific, which includes the growing sophistication of its Beidou navigation network is one of the new frontiers of the tension between the US and China.

The space station site in Western Australia is presently owned by SSC subsidiary, SSC Space Australia, and many of these sites are the vital part of space programs given they create a telecommunications link with spacecraft. While stations have different capabilities, they can be equipped to co-ordinate satellites for civil-military Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) such as Beidou, Russia’s GLONASS, the European Union’s Galileo system, and US-owned GPS.