How China’s Military Plugs into the Global Space Sector

The university is supervised by the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, which in turn is overseen by the State Council’s Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development. Along with its strong links to the military sector, there have also been allegations that the university conducts cyberattacks on behalf of the military. As a result, it has been categorized as a very high-risk institution for collaboration.

With the lines between the civilian and the military blurred by the State Council, Wuhan University can use its international affiliations to support the PLA. Once such affiliation is with the International GNSS Service, a voluntary federation comprising 350 organizations across 118 countries. Its mission is to provide open-access data products on navigational satellites for the benefit of its members and the wider scientific community.

Historically, China has faced difficulties establishing its own satellite tracking stations. Its ground station in Kiribati became a thorny issue during the Pacific island nation’s 2003 election. More recently, Chinese stations in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela have provoked concerns. While China still needs these large stations for its wider ambitions in outer space, it can readily access an existing global network of 520 smaller reference stations that monitor navigational satellites.

Wuhan University has used the International GNSS Service to access an invaluable stream of data. Its center on satellite systems hosts one of the service’s global data centres. Through this, Wuhan University can utilize a worldwide network that stretches from Canberra to Reykjavik, allowing the Chinese military to plug into the global space sector.

This data is then available to support projects funded by the PLA. The Wuhan center has reported involvement in at least 30 research and 300 engineering initiatives. Such work receives funding from the military sector to shore up deficiencies and gain strategic edges. One example of a project that used international data looked at strategies to decrease ionospheric interference for BeiDou. Such a study—or those like it—almost certainly culminates to support capabilities like the YJ-18A missile.

As a result of such efforts, the Wuhan center on satellite systems received an award for ‘Outstanding Contribution’ by the PLA’s General Armaments Department (since renamed the Equipment Development Department).

Organizations like the International GNSS Service need to be aware that even overtly civilian entities like Wuhan University can be intertwined with the Chinese military. Collaboration with high-risk institutions must be done with extreme care to ensure data and products intended to support international science and commerce are not redirected towards unwanted military uses.

Samuel Strickland has a background in physics and international relations and recently completed a postgraduate research project on China’s satellite systems at the University of Canterbury.This article is published courtesy of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).