South America is embracing Beijing’s science silk road
From a secretive space facility to plans for new telescopes, South America is starting to see the scientific impacts of China’s global infrastructure expansion.
By Lucien O. Chauvin & Barbara Fraser
Even before Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the monumental trade plan now known as the Belt and Road Initiative to the rest of the world, he was already selling elements of it to astronomers.
Mónica Rubio, president of the Chilean Society of Astronomy in Santiago, vividly recalls sitting in a packed auditorium in August 2012 when Xi made his pitch during the opening address at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Beijing.
Xi was still vice-president of China at the time and was a year away from announcing his ambitious trade plan — a venture later named One Belt, One Road. But when he spoke to the world’s astronomers, he outlined an expansive view of China and its connections with the rest of the globe, through both economic development and cooperation in science and technology. These would later be enshrined in the even larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which now extends across much of the world. Rubio, an astronomer at the University of Chile in Santiago, says that Xi talked about investment, supporting scientists and plans for global development in astronomy with large telescopes. “He offered an aggressive approach that no one had anticipated.”
That approach would crystallize quickly in her country and more broadly in South America, with the 2013 launch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ South America Center for Astronomy (CASSACA) in the Chilean capital. The following year, in a watershed speech in Brazil, Xi outlined a ‘1 + 3 + 6’ framework for Chinese–Latin American relations. It called for one plan, involving the three engines of trade, investment and financial cooperation, and six fields, including scientific and technological innovation.
Most governments in South America have got on the bandwagon and view the BRI as a way to secure investment for roads, power plants and other infrastructure they cannot afford (see ‘American partners’). But, as in other regions where BRI projects have started, some scientists and environmentalists have raised concerns. Although they see benefits such as new telescopes and fellowships for graduate training, they worry about the lack of environmental oversight — and that, in the rush to secure funding, governments might not pay close enough attention to technical and financial guidelines for mitigating impacts.
Pepe Zhang at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC sees the BRI today more as a “concept than an initiative, because it encompasses many things and is evolving”.
Zhang, who is associate director of the council’s China in Latin America programme, says the central issue for the BRI in the region is infrastructure. But, he adds, “Going forward, science and technology could become the main component, and it is only natural that this would be reflected in Belt and Road.”
The Chinese way
Rubio and her colleagues are still coming to terms with what Chinese involvement and investment mean to science in Chile and more globally. “The relationship with China is just getting started, and the implementation of the agreements is going to take time,” says Rubio.
She says it is important to keep in mind that China has huge resources and that its agreements are part of long-term strategies. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but should not be forgotten, adds Rubio.
“When establishing scientific collaboration with China, you need to recognize that it is an asymmetrical relationship because of the volume of professionals and the resources that they can invest, and they come in with a long-term vision,” she says.
Astrophysicist Gaspar Galaz, director of the Institute of Astrophysics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in San Joaquín, says that Chinese participation in Chile is entirely different to previous collaborations with foreign universities and research institutes.
“To be honest, it is kind of like culture shock. The Chinese way of doing things is top down, which is something new for us. I am not saying that the relationship has not been positive, but it is different,” he says.
Galaz says that previous agreements with European and North American institutions generally began with discussions among academics, moving on to feasibility studies, proposals and then conversations with government authorities. He says this was not the case for CASSACA, a joint project of the National Astronomical Observatory of China and the University of Chile. It was a country-to-country agreement, and academics were later informed that there would be a partnership with China.
One of the more sensitive parts of the agreement is that Chinese scientists are able to apply for access to observation time that Chile is allotted at international astronomical facilities located in the country. Chile gets 10% of each facility’s time.
Rubio says that although there are some complaints from Chilean scientists about ceding time to non-Chileans, strict requirements apply: Chinese scientists need to have worked for at least nine consecutive months in the country and must be affiliated with a Chilean institution.
Anthony Beasley, director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, says that China’s telescope deal with Chile is “quite clever”. He gives the example of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile’s northern Atacama desert, in which China is not a member. The deal gives Chinese scientists access to the facility, he says, “without having to strike a complex deal with all the existing partners and buy a percentage of time. They gain access to Chilean time in a controlled way. It makes sense.”
The CASSACA programme is at the heart of China’s scientific work in Chile. It has 20 people, including staff members, visiting scholars and students, and an annual budget of about US$1.5 million. Galaz says the CASSACA agreement also came with a fund for Chilean astronomers to spend on research, and to enable scientists from the nation to visit China. He says there is no fixed amount, with the annual fund varying between $200,000 and $500,000.
Six years after its founding, CASSACA is working towards bigger plans. Its director Zhong Wang, a Chinese astronomer, says there is a possibility of expanding the facility into a multidisciplinary centre at which Chinese scientists could collaborate with researchers in Chile and other South American countries on studies of earthquakes, oceans, Antarctica, deserts, climate change and other fields.
In Antofagasta, on Chile’s northern coast, CASSACA has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Catholic University of the North, which has a large tract of land in the mountains suitable for a joint observatory. Although there are no definitive plans, the site could house small to medium optical telescopes, which Wang says would be a follow-up to China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou province in southwestern China.
“It is part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative,” he says of CASSACA, “but we are doing this mainly for the development of science on the Chinese side. We think this is the future of Chinese observational astronomy.”
Working in secret
These developments intrigue Chilean scientists not only because of the scope, but also because of the silence around them. “We do not know what is going on, which is one of the things that bothers people,” says Galaz. “I do not think there is opposition to Chinese participation, which has been positive, but there is a lot of secrecy.”
Secrecy around national agreements with China, whether in science or for broader BRI projects, is something that also unnerves people elsewhere in the region. Nineteen Latin American countries, mainly small ones, have now signed non-binding BRI memoranda of understanding with China.
Some larger countries, including Brazil, have not formally signed up, but already receive significant Chinese financing, and some projects have been rebranded as BRI.
China has made more than $140 billion in loan commitments to countries in the region since 2005. In 2018, the loans totalled $7.7 billion, the first annual increase in three years, according to a database maintained by the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington DC and Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center in Massachusetts.
Venezuela has been the largest recipient, with $67.2 billion — much of it for the oil industry — followed by Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina. Energy is by far the biggest target of investment, at $96.9 billion, followed by infrastructure, which received $25.9 billion. China is now Latin America’s second-largest trading partner, and the region is the second-largest recipient of Chinese overseas investment.
Whether these projects involve a river-dredging operation in Peru or power transmission in Guyana, watchdog groups say they are stonewalled when they try to get information from Chinese companies and their own governments about projects.
Opinions about the BRI in South America often diverge. Some governments see the initiative as a chance to complete long-desired infrastructure projects for which they lack funds. But conservationists and some scientists fear that construction of roads, railways and dams will spell disaster for fragile ecosystems such as those of the Amazon rainforest. Highways and access roads accelerate deforestation, fragmenting the forest and threatening to disrupt the basin’s hydrological cycle, says biologist William Laurance at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.
“I think that the biggest problem with a lot of these projects is that they’re being pushed through very fast,” says Laurance, who studies the impacts of infrastructure projects in the Amazon basin, as well as the BRI around the world. “Things that shouldn’t be approved are being approved.”
In China, after a period of rapid growth, “There’s a focus now at home on what you’d call a more sustainable approach to development,” says Rebecca Ray, a postdoctoral fellow at Boston’s Global Development Policy Center. Overseas, however, “It appears to be exporting the same model that has been in place in China over the past few decades.”
The China Development Bank, one of the main lenders involved in the BRI, lacks the environmental and social safeguards that Western lenders, such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, have drafted in recent years. Those have arisen under pressure from environmentalists, Indigenous groups and rights organizations, according to a report published by the Global Development Policy Center and the University of the Pacific in Lima (see go.nature.com/2jukvgi). Instead, China adheres to the host country’s rules, which might not be strongly enforced, says Ray.
Similar concerns have emerged about some science and technology investments. The most startling example today is in Argentina, where non-profit groups monitoring government policies have objected to Chinese projects, fearing the long-term economic, environmental and political impact they could have. Organizations say they have not succeeded in obtaining information about these projects from the Argentinian and Chinese governments.
One project that has sparked broad international media interest is a $50-million Chinese-funded satellite and space mission control centre in the country’s Patagonia region that had a role in landing a Chinese rover on the far side of the Moon in January. The bilateral agreement signed in 2012 gives Argentina access to antenna time at the control centre, but local groups maintain that there is no evidence of this or other benefits for Argentina.
María Marta Di Paola, research director at Argentina’s Environment and Natural Resources Foundation, a think tank in Buenos Aires, says requests about the space centre are met with silence from Argentinian and Chinese authorities alike. Nature tried repeatedly without success to obtain information from the centre about its activities.
“All we know is that this is a Chinese project behind a big fence and highly protected. Truthfully, it is like looking into a foreign country on your own soil,” says Di Paola.
She says its real purpose is also unclear, despite assurances from authorities that the complex does not have a military use. “The agreement was signed in 2012, but only in 2016 was the non-military clause added. It raises many questions that have never been answered,” she says, including the possibility of financial penalties if Argentina’s government were to make changes to the contract.
A similar collaboration, but without the same level of secrecy, has formed in Brazil, where the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in São Paulo inaugurated the China–Brazil Joint Laboratory for Space Weather in August 2014. The project provides real-time data about processes and disturbances in Earth’s upper atmosphere to researchers in both countries, says Joaquim Costa, general manager of the INPE space-weather programme. China also funds nine fellowships for scholars to conduct research at CAS facilities.
Zhang at the Atlantic Council says a growing focus on science and technology in the region should not come as a surprise as China’s role in South America expands. Meanwhile, its own economy is evolving as its leaders work to rebrand the country as a technology and innovations powerhouse.
“You have more Chinese companies internationalizing, and you have a country that is embracing technology,” he says, “so it is only natural that there is a science and technology component reflected internationally.”