Argentine lawmakers seek greater oversight of Chinese space facility in Patagonia

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine lawmakers have proposed legislation to boost oversight of a Chinese space tracking station that has stirred unease among local residents, fueled conspiracy theories and sparked concerns amongst critics about its true intent.

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The Chinese-run facility, a space observation station located in Argentina’s remote Patagonia region, has a powerful 16-story antenna that is able to help monitor and coordinate China’s growing space program.

Six lawmakers, including the Senate majority leader, submitted a bill to create a commission that would monitor “the cooperation agreement” between Argentina and the Chinese government relating to the lunar exploration program.

In January, Reuters reported that the remote 200 hectare (494 acre) station operated with little oversight by Argentine authorities. President Mauricio Macri’s former foreign minister, Susana Malcorra, said Argentina had no physical oversight of the station’s operations.

The bill, dated March 25, was referred to on the Senate’s official website, though the full text of the legislation was not publicly available.

Miguel Ángel Pichetto, the majority leader, said in a post on his official Twitter account that he had presented the bill to create a commission to control the space tracking station, run by the Chinese military, located in the central province of Neuquén in Patagonia.

He added that the proposed team would include seven members from the Senate and seven from the Chamber of Deputies, the two houses of Argentina’s National Congress.

According to Chinese media, the station’s aim is peaceful space observation and exploration. State news agency Xinhua has said it played a key role in China’s landing of spacecraft on the dark side of the moon in January.

Argentina’s space agency CONAE did not respond to requests for comment. The agency has previously said the agreement between the two countries stated a commitment to “peaceful use” of the project.

An official at the Chinese embassy in Argentina said in an emailed statement that the cooperation between the two countries around the station was “going well”, and that delegations and student groups had made “multiple visits” to the facility.

The official told Reuters that China and Argentina were now building a scientific exhibition hall inside the station, which once completed would “serve as a new platform for the dissemination of aerospace knowledge for the local community”.

Argentina’s Congress debated the space station in 2015, during the presidency of Cristina Fernandez when the deal was approved.

The station, about a 40 minutes’ drive from Las Lajas, became operational in April last year. Thirty Chinese employees work and live on site, which employs no locals, Maria Espinosa, the mayor of the town of 7,000 people, previously told Reuters.

Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Phil Berlowitz and Diane Craft