EXCLUSIVE-Swedish space company halts new business helping China operate satellites

by Reuters
Monday, 21 September 2020 16:44 GMT

* SSC will not renew contracts with Chinese customers

* China has leased Australian facility since at least 2011

* Chinese companies have access to SCC antennas on three continents

* Ground stations are vital to space and navigational programmes (Adds quotes, details and clarifies new policy covers all SSC stations)

By Jonathan Barrett and Johan Ahlander

SYDNEY/STOCKHOLM, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Sweden's state-owned space company, which provides ground stations that help fly Chinese spacecraft and transmit data, said on Monday it would no longer renew contracts with China or accept new Chinese business, because of changes in geopolitics.

The Sweden Space Corporation (SSC) has had contracts allowing Beijing access to its antennas in Sweden, Chile and Australia since at least 2011. It told Reuters those contracts would not be renewed.

"The geopolitical situation has changed since these contracts were signed in the early 2000s. We have to assess where we can do business and it's harder for us to make that assessment regarding the Chinese market now," Anni Bolenius, head of communications at SSC, told Reuters.

The company made the comments after Reuters reported that SSC would not renew a contract for China to use its ground station in Australia.

The company's Chinese contracts cover weather and earth-monitoring satellites as well as support for manned missions. SSC did not disclose when the contracts expire or say how many Chinese satellites it helps operate. Bolenius said such contracts typically last around 10 years.

Last year, the Swedish Defence Research Agency said in a report that China could make military use of its access to antennas at Sweden's Esrange ground station in the far north. China has denied that any satellites that are part of the contracts with Sweden are used military purposes.

The Australian antenna is located next to an SSC satellite station primarily used by the United States and its agencies, including NASA. The site is owned by an SSC subsidiary, SSC Space Australia.

The Australian, Swedish and Chinese governments did not immediately respond to questions on Monday.

The expansion of China's space capabilities, which includes the growing sophistication of its Beidou navigation network, is one of the new frontiers of tension between the United States and China.

Australia has a strong alliance with the United States, including on space research and programmes, while Canberra's diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing have been fracturing.

China last used the Yatharagga Satellite Station, located about 350 km (250 miles) north of the Australian city of Perth, in June 2013 to support the three-person Shenzhou 10 mission which completed a series of space docking tests, SSC said.

China's space programme has been increasing its access to overseas ground stations in recent years in line with the expansion of its space exploration and navigational programmes.

Ground stations can help the accuracy of a satellite navigation system, said Joon Wayn Cheong, a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales' School of Electrical Engineering.

Christopher Newman, professor of Space Law and Policy at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, said China wants to remove its dependence on the U.S.-owned GPS navigation system as part of broader plans to expand its global influence.

"GPS could be made unavailable to them in a military conflict. An independent secure system is crucial for the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army in respect to targeting, weapons, navigation," Newman told Reuters.

Beijing last year re-established diplomatic ties with the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where it has a mothballed ground station in the central Pacific Ocean.

(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Johan Ahlander; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Peter Graff)

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