Why is China afraid of Starlink

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Baware of Starlinksaid the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The mega-constellation of satellites, designed to provide high-bandwidth internet access, is operated by SpaceX, an American private company. But officials in Washington are certainly taking advantage of it, warning the Liberation Army every day. When Starlink was brought to Ukraine last year, after Russia invaded the country, the military newspaper called it a “supporter” of the “hegemony-obsessed”. US“. Don’t forget that Ukraine asked for SpaceX for help.

Starlink has been critical to the Ukrainian war effort. The satellite links have allowed soldiers to communicate, identify targets and upload videos for the world to see. The system is hard to swallow. From China’s perspective, this not only puts its friend Russia at a disadvantage, it also raises concerns about Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims. If Taiwan got access to Starlink, it would make a Chinese attack much more difficult.

But China’s concerns go further than that. There is a fear that America, through Starlink, is building a land in low Earth orbit. China, too, wants to be a power in this field. And he wants the capabilities that systems like Starlink offer. So he is working on his own version.

Cutting the cord

When it comes to Taiwan, analysts believe that China, if attacked, could start by removing the 14 undersea internet cables that keep the island connected to the world . Taiwan is adding cables and planning how to protect its landing points. But it is also testing antennae in 700 locations, including some outside Taiwan. These would be able to send and receive signals via satellites in low orbit, such as those used by Starlink. The goal is to make the antenna “as mobile as possible” to survive an attack, says Tzeng Yisuo of the National Institute for Defense and Security Research, a think tank in Taiwan.

China has the ability to shoot down satellites. But Starlink is made up of more than 4,000 of them and aims to eventually have tens of thousands. China may continue to have more success in SpaceXfounder, Elon Musk, to deny Taiwan access to Starlink. Mr. Musk has another large factory, Tesla, in Shanghai. Last year he suggested giving China control over Taiwan to resolve their dispute. (PlaceX lists Taiwan as a “coming soon” location for Starlink, but the company has not applied to operate there on a commercial basis.)

Not surprisingly, Taiwan is looking to reduce its dependence on others. Its space agency is developing its own low-orbit communications satellites. The first one is expected to be launched in 2025.

China’s low-orbit ambitions are much bigger. In 2020 the government filed papers with the International Telecommunication Union, which UN body, for a 12,992-satellite constellation. A year later the government established China Satellite Networks Group Limited and tasked them with developing satellite internet. At least seven state-owned and private Chinese companies are building satellite factories, expected to be able to produce hundreds of small communications satellites each year.

Officials in Beijing have developed a space-race mentality. Special orbits and radio frequencies are “rare strategic resources” that Starlink wants to “monopolise”, he warned the Daily Liberation Army in 2022. Last year Wu Yansheng, chairman of a major Chinese space contractor, said his country must move faster to become a “space power”. In April the Prime Minister, Li Qiang, visited three start-up companies to emphasize the importance of their businesses. One of them was Galaxy Space, a maker of satellites, six of which were launched into low orbit last year.

Much of the recent activity stems from Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader,’s desire to modernize PLA. His generals have studied at length how America uses communications and intelligence tools to move faster and see more clearly on the battlefield. Mr. Xi wants to create a highly “informed” force, one that can use information technology to cooperate across land, air and sea – not to mention space and cyberspace.

The crowded sky

China will have many neighbors in low orbit outside of SpaceX. The British government owns OneWeb, which is about to complete a constellation of 650 satellites. Kuiper, a constellation designed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is expected to launch its first test satellites soon. The EU designing its own system, as is Russia. For world powers, satellite Internet could come to be seen as a strategic capability, similar to satellite navigation, that requires a degree of sovereign control.

PlaceX it has an important advantage. Satellites in low orbit don’t last long, so the company replaces them regularly. That includes a large number of rocket launches (one is pictured here). PlaceX which has the best system in the world for that, the partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket. Now they are working on a much larger, reusable spacecraft called Starship that could launch hundreds of satellites at once. It seems that some Chinese companies are trying to build results.

Every action worries China. The Daily Liberation Army complaining that there is only room for 50,000 satellites in low Earth orbit and that Starlink could eventually take up more than 80% of that space. But the calculation is not that simple, says Juliana Suess of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. Think of low orbit as a highway, she says. What needs to be worked out is how many cars can be moved on the highway safely. Much depends on the size of the satellites and their orbits.

In 2021 two Starlink satellites were on a collision course with a Chinese space station, causing it to drift. So says China, at least. America denies the allegations. It is possible that the two powers use different methods to calculate orbits, says Benjamin Silverstein from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in America. They may also have different ideas about what is too close for comfort. What is clear is that the lack of communication exacerbated the problem, as did the lack of norms around traffic in low orbit. America and China used to talk about these things, but there have been no such meetings since 2017. That is dangerous. As low orbit becomes more crowded, the chance of a serious accident grows.

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