How China is using its Belt & Road initiative in Pakistan, Egypt to extend its Space Internet Edge in LEO

The latest space race aims to deliver real-time, latency satellite internet for data-intensive industrial and commercial communications applications. LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites closer to Earth have the advantage of increased data transmission as a shorter journey equals a faster journey.

LEOs are safe because communications take place in space, protected from natural and man-made disasters. As terrestrial broadband access becomes more limited, LEOs can raise the standard by offering blazing-fast connections and ubiquitous satellite internet to various companies.

To enable access to high-speed, low-latency broadband internet services, Amazon and SpaceX intend to deploy a constellation of more than 7,500 satellites for Project Kuiper and more than 4,400 satellites for Starlink.

While Blue Origin plans to build the Orbital Reef LEO space station for commercial, research and recreational use, Raytheon Technologies seeks to provide high quality LEO satellite missions.

Chinese advance via satellite communications

The United States could lose its competitive edge if China moves forward with plans for its own LEO broadband network, which could fall somewhere between commercial and state-owned.

China is developing LEO systems for its use, but also intends to offer services across Asia, South America and Africa, which currently lack comprehensive internet infrastructure, and US companies are also vying for business.

China is using its coveted Belt and Road initiative to gain more market share for its LEO constellations.

Considering China’s successful strategy to export terrestrial infrastructure via the Digital Silk Road and the fact that Huawei has built up to 70% of 4G network infrastructure across Africa, these agreements and commitments can greatly help the nation achieve its goal achieve a widespread infrastructure to host LEO broadband service.

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Given its significant economic clout in many BRI nations, China is well positioned to gain regulatory concessions for its national LEO scheme while discouraging the use of US commercial services.

Due to various diplomatic strategies, bundling of fixed infrastructure and digital services, and attractive price, it will likely be difficult to compete with Chinese companies for market dominance in BRI nations.

China uses its ICT presence

Dominating foreign markets brings benefits beyond economic gains. China’s strong information and communication technology (ICT) presence in BRI countries creates path dependencies, spreads techno-authoritarian norms and standards, strengthens China’s voice in international governance and standard-setting bodies, and strengthens China’s power over global networks.

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The successful proliferation of China’s LEO broadband service could strengthen China’s presence on foreign terrestrial networks, give Beijing greater control over international traffic and give it extensive intelligence and coercive powers.

China’s open push for civil-military integration points to integrated dual-use capabilities in foreign BRI infrastructure. A planning document released by the State Council in 2016 reiterated China’s ambitions to deploy satellite communications systems, linking them to the “development of military-civilian fusion to acquire global service capabilities as soon as possible.”

China has asked the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for permission to operate a fleet of 12,992 satellites in low Earth orbit. The state-funded SatNet program aims to create a manufacturing facility for satellites and reusable launch vehicles in space.

The combination of OneWeb, Amazon, Telesat and China SatNet could potentially put over 90,000 satellites into orbit.

China is expanding its technological lead in BRI

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Countries that allow Chinese ground stations and grant landing rights to the nation may find it less costly to further implement Chinese ICT technology due to the potential role that LEO constellations will play in communications networks.

The default adoption of China-designed norms, standards and data governance practices may result from high reliance on China-built and operated digital infrastructure.

Tanzania, a close BRI partner nation, has modeled some of its data and cybersecurity laws after Beijing, further restricting the social media environment and information flow in the country.

The regulatory compliance cost of purchasing other Chinese-origin ICT technology is consequently reduced by such adoption and regulatory adjustment.

The decision to integrate Chinese LEO broadband into current network stacks will be relatively easy for countries like Pakistan and Egypt, whose entire digital infrastructure is heavily influenced by Chinese assets, from undersea cables and terrestrial fiber optic lines to 5G networks and satellite ground stations.

The dual-use nature of China’s space program and China’s national strategy of civil-military integration suggest that Guowang could either be routinely deployed for military use or mobilized to support PLA operations in times of need.

An operational LEO satellite internet capability could improve the speed and coverage of Chinese military communications in remote or sparsely populated theaters of war, particularly in support of aircraft or ships operating outside the First Island Chain.

Beijing’s ambitious space plans coincide with the creation of the Belt and Road spatial information corridor, which reinforces the importance of space in Chinese thinking on national security and economic development, as well as the importance Xi Jinping attaches to the Belt and Road Initiative as a tool attaches importance to promoting Chinese interests and strengthening their path in the diplomatic, economic and security fields.

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Chinese statements and publications suggest that the corridor is crucial in terms of its role in the BRI and its strategic importance.

Group Captain Arvind Pandey (Retd) is a geospatial expert. He is trained in the full spectrum of image analysis in airborne and spaceborne sensors and has extensive experience in building geo-infrastructures. Contact the author at arvind.pandey65(at) Follow EurAsian Times on Google News