It is no secret that China is Pakistan’s great economic hope and most trusted military partner, well beyond the converging, regional interests that the two countries have in common. To some extent, Pakistan lies at the heart of Bejing’s geostrategic ambitions, as it represents a global naval power as well as a great infrastructure opportunity to connect the energy-rich Middle East to energy-hungry East Asia. It comes as no surprise that China is secretly nudging Pakistan towards acquiring soon a sharper outer space military capability. Something that could also translate into intelligence sharing.
Although little is evident on the surface, the Pakistan-China cooperation in space technology has been ongoing since 2018, when China agreed to train Pakistani astronauts and assist the country in space-science and exploration. In 2021 Pakistan has decided to increase its budget for the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Organisation (Suparco), the most important organization engaged in space technology and exploration as well as a part of the National Command Authority, which ultimately controls the nuclear command. Suparco is also closely linked with the Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL), the institution responsible for Pakistan’s missiles program.Recent events involving Suparco and the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (Sast), part of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (Casc), the state-owned main contractor for the Chinese space program, indicate deeper cooperation between the two countries on space technology, including military applications. Sast is a premier Chinese institution involved in designing, developing, and manufacturing launch vehicles and components, from which Pakistan is in the process of buying an Earth Observation Satellite – Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite, or PRSS-02. Earlier this year, Suparco issued a request for information (RFI) for PRSS-02 to the Chinese company, with the objective to acquire or develop a very high resolution (VHR) optical remote sensing satellite system, which Pakistan intends to launch by mid-2025 for a 7-year a lifespan. In practical terms, this sort of sophisticated technology will help the military in intelligence gathering, battlefield reconnaissance and weapons guidance. According to the available information about the deal, PRSS-02 will share the ground-facility resources of the existing PRSS-01, launched in 2018 from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Centre. Two S-Band control stations are working in Karachi and Islamabad, while one fixed and one mobile data receiving stations in X band operate from Islamabad and Karachi respectively. The Chinese plan is to share the PRSS-02 data through the Shanghai Academy, but in order to enable this cooperation China has asked Pakistan to engage the Singapore-based M/s Space Chain, a “community-based space platform that intends to build an open and neutral infrastructure for the New Space Economy by integrating space and blockchain technologies”, according to its website.
The Chinese PRSS-01 sold to Pakistan was ostensibly for civilian purposes, although it seems to have quite substantial military applications as well. PRSS-02 will only add teeth to Pakistan’s space capabilities, which China is set to exploit through commercial fronts like Spacechain. It is hard to believe that the Shanghai Academy’s plan to share critical data accessed from other satellites using the Singapore firm comes without direct supervision from the Chinese State. More likely, this partnership is set to exploit the private firm as a convenient hub for intelligence sharing.