US asks Canberra about China space base

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2011, 12:00am


Washington asked the Australian government for an explanation as to why China has access to a space tracking station in Western Australia after learning about it in an article in the South China Morning Post on November 5.

The request was made prior to US President Barack Obama's visit to Australia two weeks ago because it was deemed a sensitive issue, according to a report in The Australian.

The Pentagon said Canberra had not consulted Washington about the station - used to track and control satellites - and that it had concerns about the facility's military use.

'Many space capabilities are inherently dual-use, and China, like a number of other countries, does not have separate military and civil programmes,' Lieutenant Colonel April Cunningham, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told the Wall Street Journal. 'These factors increase the need for transparency in order to avoid mishaps, misperceptions and mistrust.'

China's use of the station was reported after this month's launch of Shenzhou VIII, which was on a historic mission to dock with a target vehicle in orbit, paving the way for the country's manned space station.

The station at Dongara, a farm in Mingenew, Western Australia, was built by the Swedish Space Corporation and leased to Beijing, although it is believed that key components were shipped from China.

Tracking stations in Australia have long been a mainstay of Western space programmes, but the opening of the Chinese facility in a country considered one of the closest allies of the US also has geopolitical implications.

A spokesman for Canberra's Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, which handles space policy, told The Australian: 'Prompted by an article in the South China Morning Post and pending the visit of the president of the United States, working-level officials of the US State and Defence departments requested background information on the media article, via the Australian embassy in Washington.'

A senior satellite expert with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said yesterday that one-third of its satellites fly over Australia, and operations would be affected if access to the station, which opened last year, was terminated.

He said he hoped Canberra would stand firm against US pressure and continue to let China operate the station for at least a decade.