South Tarawa Island, Republic of Kiribati
In order to support the piloted space program, China increased the number of fixed ground tracking, telemetry and command stations within China territory from 5 to 6. In addition, two new overseas tracking stations were built in the Pacific, on South Tarawa Island of the Republic of Kiribati and at Swakopmund, Namibia, Africa. China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General [CLTC] manages China's launch facilities and it tracks and controls all China's domestic satellites through a control centre and a TT&C network, which consists of ground stations located all over China and one ground station in the South Tarawa Island of the Republic of Kiribati. CLTC also manages mobile stations and ships for TT&C.
The "China Space TT and C Station", opened in 1997, is on a back road on Bikenibeu islet, near Tarawa's airport. Responding to local concerns, in September 1999 Chinese officials opened their space telemetry tracking and command station on Tarawa atoll in Kiribati to inspection. The station in recent months had aroused local suspicion that it may really be intended to monitor the major US missile range at Kwajalein in the adjacent Marshall Islands. The inspection party included towns-people from Belio, the Kiribati seat of government, and the local members of parliament. The team reportedly entered all the buildings on the site and later said that the visit had cleared up any concerns.
The China Space Telemetry Tracking Station is fenced off and its dozens of workers live in a secure compound. When an AFP reporter was able to go inside the base in 1999 its satellite dishes were aligned northward toward Kwajalein. Inside there is a substantial two storey dormitory, currently occupied by three men but capable of many more. The station has a large power station with four generators -- enough electricity for most of Tarawa. There are two large satellite dishes mounted on military trailers with cables run into permanently parked buses in garages.
Kiribati is a key space location. Japan is developing Kiritimati (Christmas) as a space shuttle landing base. In international waters just south of Kiritimati the giant Sea Launch company operating out of California launches commercial satellites using a converted deep-sea oil platform.
China said its base is an innocent part of its civilian space program. But the government of President Teburoro Tito refused to release details of its discussions with Beijing and the details of the 15-year lease. In October 2002 the station become an election issue, leaving political opponents an open season on speculation over its real role.
Kiribati's 96,000 Micronesian people inhabit 21 of 33 islands spread across the equator. The economy is dependent on fishing and fishing licence revenue, copra, seaweed exports, foreign aid and income from a national investment fund.
On 29 November 2003, China severed diplomatic relations with the Pacific island of Kiribati, following a decision three weeks earlier by President Anote Tong's government to formally recognized Taiwan as a country. Three days prior, China verbally threatened to break ties with Kiribati, along with physical warnings of its seriousness by quickly dismantling its satellite tracking base, withdrawing its doctors from the medical facility, and halting construction on a sports stadium. China had previously claimed the importance of the tracking station, one of three Chinese stations overseas, that played a big role in its first manned space mission. Media reports indicate that the site may have also been used to monitor the U.S. missile range at Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands. After the diplomatic break, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. reported that "the loss of diplomatic relations will not affect the country's space missions or the launch of the Shenzhou VI" and a new facility could be built in the region.
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