Argentinians in the Patagonia desert perceive the Chinese space centre in a positive light, even though it has been an uncomfortable development for Washington.
In a nondescript Argentinian desert of Patagonia, China has invested $50 billion in developing a space centre to send a rocket to the dark side of the moon.
A gigantic white and lotus-shaped antenna sprouts in the middle of the desert, and next to it is a rectangular base station for Chinese space scientists and engineers.
Although the site has been an uncomfortable development for Argentina's regional neighbour, the US, it has spurred the local economy next to the space station in the otherwise debt-ridden town of Las Lajas.
Prior to the arrival of Chinese contractors, the town was reeling with high unemployment and poverty. Enter the Chinese space programme, which brought in a lot of skilled workers from both China and Argentina, and the town experienced a new lease of life.
First the Chinese presence gave people something to talk about, as the town had been uneventful for decades, and later a lot of local residential property owners found an opportunity to rent their own houses to workers who were building the base station for the Chinese and regional workforce.
The politics of Argentina is however divided over the Chinese presence in the country. For an academic and specialist in Latin America-Chinese affairs Gustavo Giraudo, critics making fuss about the Chinese presence is based on their "racist assumptions" that it’s “evil, ugly and yellow because it’s China”.
Giraudo considers the space centre facility a step forward for the Argentinian space committee.
The base is a small fragment of China's heavy investments worth tens of billions in Argentina. Over the past decade, when the country was close to hitting rock bottom, it was Beijing that offered a helping hand — with loans and infrastructure financing worth $141 billion since 2005 — and salvaged it from slipping into recession.
In return, the move helped Beijing gain a foothold in Latin America and position itself in the 'backyard' of the US. The agreement also came at a steal: 494 acres of land, rent and tax-free, for 50 years, with just 10 percent access to the Argentine government.
Most of the workers building the space centre facility were Argentinians, some from town, others from a province called Neuquen and a quarter from China. Every day these workers would make an hour long drive on the National Route 40 to a place called Paraje Quintuco.
The Argentinian and Chinese flags are hoisted outside the facility, along with the logos of both the Argentinean space committee, CONAE, and the China Launching and Satellite Control General - or CLTC- a branch of China's People's Liberation Army which reports directly to the Ministry of Defence.
Argentina has a long history of cooperating with foreign countries to improve its space centre. The latest international cooperation it signed was with Russia in October 2019. Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS will build several stations of the Glonass (Global navigation satellite system GNSS) in Argentina, among other joint projects.
None of the Argentinian space agreements with other powers have raised any of the questions and attention that the Chinese facility has received both inside or outside of Argentina, particularly by the US government and New York and Washington-based media organisations.
The US government has grown wary of China's presence in the country, with its senior defence officials warning Washington of a military advantage Beijing has gained through its space facility in the deserts of Patagonia.
In February 2019, Admiral Craig Faller, the commander of US Southern Command, gave a testimony before the Congress, warning lawmakers about China’s fast expansion into Latin America.
“Beijing could be in violation of the terms of its agreement with Argentina to only conduct civilian activities and may have the ability to monitor and potentially target US, allied, and partner space activities,” said Faller, in a written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
China has granted access to the Neuquen base station to some local school children, handing out brochures on the Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme, however Argentinian authorities have no control over the area. Ringed with barbed wire, the facility has a complete radio frequency blockade up to 100 kilometres. It’s a de facto Chinese territory inside Argentina.
Geopolitical analyst Carlos Pereyra Mele sees the facility in a different light.
“One must analyse this military facility -because that’s what it ultimately is- in the context of the worldwide dispute between the two current superpowers," Mele said. "Over the past twenty years China has become South America’s largest business partner, and the Chinese government has been implementing politics of soft power throughout the continent. The facility in Neuquen is China exercising that soft power. In my view, it’s a reckless and unnecessary concession of sovereignty that puts the country as a potential target in a dispute in which we’re just secondary actors.”
But residents of Las Lajas say the Chinese presence left a positive impact on the region's economy.
During the initial days of construction, the people of Las Lajas were amused to see Chinese workers stepping out of the facility on Sundays and Mondays, their days off, wearing kimonos.
"We thought it was funny because we thought they were dressed in pajamas," Las Lajas Mayor Maria Angelica Espinosa told Vice.
But after the construction was complete, the Chinese workers moved from the town to the base in the Patagonian desert. For Las Lajas, it meant a loss of capital as Chinese workers would spend money in the local market, boosting its economy.
Espinosa said China's presence, despite the departure of its workers, was "ultimately a positive development" for a town that was always low on investment and struggling to create jobs.
"When they left there was unemployment and houses were empty once again. We had a kind of recession but we managed to overcome it and it is something that today is almost unnoticeable. They left us a lot of skilled labour which we did not have here. Today we are doing our own paving and are going to build houses here with skilled workers. We got something positive," Espinosa told Vice.
Although the facility in Patagonia is not open to the public, Chinese authorities gave tours to local school students and teachers. Professor Demian Quiroga, a high school teacher in the city of Neuquen and one of the few who has visited the Chinese center, told TRT World that it did not come across as a "high tech place you expect to see when you think of a Chinese space centre".
"In fact some of the computers seemed completely outdated, like running on Windows 98 or something similar...I didn’t get the sense that there was anything worth hiding, any mystery to it,” Quiroga said.
"When I went there were only 11 people on the site and it was pretty hard to communicate with them; they were nice and everything, but only one of them, the head engineer spoke some English, the rest only Mandarin… they showed us around, moved the antenna for us, prepared a greeting meal, handed us some brochures from the Chinese moon exploration programme and that was it”.