By Andrew Wright
21 February, 2018
The Sydney Morning Herald
Originally published: http://www.smh.com.au/world/china-eyeing-bolivia-s-lithium-riches-helps-country-into-space-20180220-p4z0yz.html
Bogota: A space program for Bolivia might seem a low priority given the South American nation's internal challanges of poverty, inequality and lack of infrastructure.
Enter China, with the know-how, launch facilities and an established hunger for Latin American raw materials.
Australia boasts five Optus communications satellites (comsats) and recently launched three other satellites, but Central and South American countries have traditionally lagged behind in this area.
China has been busy building up space contracts with nations in the region. Venezuela launched its third satellite from Chinese soil in October and Bolivia is expected to get a second comsat from China by 2022.
In fact, in recent years, China has started to compete with US and European satellite companies globally. Satellite communications technology makes a lot of sense for a country like Bolivia, a mountainous, landlocked nation of 10.9 million people, Lluc Palerm, a senior analyst at space industry consultancy Northern Sky Research (NSR), told Fairfax Media.
The first satellite, launched from China in 2013, was named Túpac Katari 1 after a Bolivian who led an uprising against the Spanish. The Bolivian Space Agency (Agencia Boliviana Espacial or ABE), said it cost cost $US302 million, with 85 per cent of that financed with a Development Bank of China loan.
The Bolivian media have questioned how long it will take for one of South America’s poorest countries to pay back the loan, W. Alejandro Sanchez, a geopolitics/defence analyst and Latin America specialist said.
“I think Tupac Katari was less of a gamble for China and more of another way to strengthen ties with the Evo Morales administration in the landlocked country,” Sanchez said.
In early February 2018, Liang Yu, the Chinese Ambassador to Bolivia was frank about China’s interest in Bolivia, a country with one of the world’s biggest and more accessible reserves of lithium.
“China is the country with the largest number of vehicles in the world and, therefore, it will be the largest market for the use of lithium batteries. One of the four consortia that presented their technical and economic proposals for the assembly and commissioning of the plant to industrialise lithium is Chinese,” he told Bolivia’s La Razon newspaper.
China is Bolivia’s second largest trading partner and Sanchez says there are some 60 Chinese companies there, some of which have built over 1300 kilometres of roads across the country.
Bolivia may just be the tip of the iceberg. A February 2018 report from NSR found the Chinese satellite industry was primed to take a larger share of the global satcom market “through attractive one-stop-shop offerings, aggressive growth plans and enhanced exports”.
Chinese influence has recently entered into Australia’s national discourse, after Labor Senator Sam Dastyari was eventually forced to resigned for supporting Beijing's position on the South China Sea after receiving political donation from a donor linked to the Chinese Communist party.
Bolivia has also seen its share of political scandals relating to Chinese companies.
Gabriela Zapata, the alleged ex-lover of Bolivian President of Bolivia Evo Morales was arrested in February of 2016, when she was the commercial manager of the Chinese engineering and infrastructure giant China CAMC Engineering, which had been awarded millions of dollars worth of contracts with the Bolivian state. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May 2017 for crimes including money laundering, illegitimate contributions and inappropriate use of public goods and services.
There is another angle to China's softpower push.
According to Sanchez that many of the countries that maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan (the Republic of China) are located in Central America and the Caribbean.
“Last year, Panama switched recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, and it is likely that other countries will follow this year as Beijing ‘purchases’ recognition via investments, financial aid and trade agreements,” Sanchez said.
Analysts told Fairfax Media Nicaragua was both a potential “Taiwan swing” and posible Chinese satellite customer.