Starlink & China: Detailing Their Troubled History

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Written By Viktor

Product manager by day, Starlink enthusiast by night.

There’s no denying that China is one of the strictest places on mother earth when it comes to freedom of speech and access to information.

Many American tech companies, such as Facebook or Google, have since exited the Chinese market. Starlink and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk certainly have felt the wrath of the Chinese government as well.

In the following article, we’ll explore the common history between China and Starlink as well as examine whether Starlink could ever be launched in the country.  

Detailing the History Between China & Starlink

In order to understand China’s stance on Starlink, we need to travel back all the way to 2007. That same year, in January, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired a so-called kinetic kill vehicle into space.

The weapon, transported on top of a rocket, was aimed at one of the country’s defunct weather satellites, namely Feng Yun-1C (FY-1C), leading to over 4,000 new detectable pieces of space debris that either burned up when re-entering earth’s atmosphere or are still floating around.

But what exactly does that have to do with Starlink, which was first announced during a SpaceX event in Seattle back in January 2015?

The initial version of Starlink relied heavily on ground stations that would act as connectors between the satellites in space and the dashes customers set up.

“Obviously, any given country can say it’s illegal to have a ground link. […] And from our standpoint we could conceivably continue to broadcast,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said during the presentation.

“If they get upset with us, they can blow our satellites up, which wouldn’t be good,” Musk pointed out when being asked about the risks Starlink faces. “China can do that. So probably we shouldn’t broadcast there.”

However, there was another reason why Musk specifically mentioned China. Tesla has traditionally derived substantial portions of its revenue from selling cars in China. This dependence culminated in the opening of Tesla’s Shanghai Gigafactory in October 2019.

Tesla’s dependence on China would eventually even trickle down to SpaceX and Starlink. Yet, in the ensuing years after the announcement, everything seemed to be going smoothly.

Every now and then, rumblings about a potential launch of China’s satellite internet would be featured in Western media.

The first semi-official confirmation arrived in March 2020 when Reuters reported that Geely, China’s largest automaker, set aside $326 million to launch its own satellite constellation.

Meanwhile, Chinese media reports indicated that China Telecom, a state-owned telecommunication provider, planned to put over 10,000 satellites into earth’s orbit. The government-sponsored mission would be dubbed StarNet.

Unfortunately, there was just one problem. China, unlike SpaceX, did not possess the necessary launch capabilities to transport rockets into space.

This is little surprising given that commercial space companies only started to appear in China dating back to 2014. SpaceX, for reference, was founded all the way back in 2003.

As a result, China officially unveiled the China Satellite Network Group, a company tasked with launching low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites into space, back in May 2021.

The group had previously submitted documents to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) last September, which detailed the creation of two LEO constellations totaling 12,992 satellites.

However, that number paled in comparison to the 42,000 satellites that Starlink aims to launch into space.

Since China remained way behind in terms of launch capabilities, it began to utilize other methods to dwarf Starlink’s progress.

In December 2021, the Chinese government filed a complaint with the UN, stating that two of Starlink’s satellites almost crashed into the country’s space station.

The two instances, one occurring on July 1st, 2020, and the other on October 21st, 2021, forced China to maneuver the core module of its space station, dubbed Tianhe, out of the satellites’ projected directions.

And throughout 2022, China and its representatives doubled down on their anti-Starlink stance. In May, Chinese researchers published a paper where they advocated for the development of anti-satellite capabilities and a monitoring system.

“A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation’s operating system,” the researchers allegedly wrote.

A month later, China Military Online, an official publication of the People’s Liberation Army, attacked Musk and SpaceX over their deep ties with the U.S. government and support of Ukraine.

Musk’s conflict of interest only became stronger as the months passed. In an interview with the Financial Times, he stated that he promised the Chinese government to not sell Starlink satellites within the country.

Meanwhile, China later also unveiled a band active phased array radar, which apparently would enable it to track any satellite roaming space.

For now, Starlink and the Chinese government maintain a somewhat peaceful arrangement.

However, China has since started to ramp up the deployment of its megaconstellation, which is commonly referred to as Guowang.

We do, although information is rather hard to come by, know that the size of China’s constellation will be equal to 13,000 satellites.

Guowang has effectively replaced the prior, notably smaller constellations named Hongyan and Hongyun. These were originally conceived by China’s primary space contractor, CASC, and its defense counterpart, CASIC, respectively.

Later this year, China anticipates the launch of the inaugural satellites for Guowang. However, at present, the country falls short in terms of the capacity required to construct the entire constellation promptly.

In response to this, China has initiated the development of production and testing facilities. Moreover, new launch pads are being established at the Wenchang spaceport on Hainan island. These efforts are aimed at facilitating a significantly increased launch frequency for new rockets.

Significantly, in February 2022, the Long March 8 rocket made history in China by launching a record 22 satellites in a single expedition as part of a commercial carpooling test. This achievement also served to validate its functionality for deploying batches of satellites.

It also emboldened Chinese officials to proclaim even grander plans. On July 25th, 2023, during a Shanghai Municipal People’s Government conference, they announced a new project called G60 Starlink.

This constellation, which is set to replace Guowang, will encompass 12,000 satellites. In the initial phase, a total of 1,296 satellites will be deployed.

tweet g60 starlink

A filing with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), dating back to April, suggest that the first phase will encompass 36 polar orbital planes, each filled with 36 satellites (for a total of 1,296).

Meanwhile, during the above-mentioned press conference, state officials also confirmed that the first few test satellites have already been launched and successfully connected.

While China remains behind in the space race for now, it’s only a matter of time until the country, which has a longstanding history of technological excellence coupled with a healthy dose of copycatting and corporate espionage, catches up.

Does Starlink Work in China?

No, Starlink does currently not work in China. You can check where Starlink is currently available on its availability map, which also details future launch dates.

As detailed in the previous chapter, China is currently working on its own satellite constellation. The resulting internet service would then be offered within China and in countries participating in the Belt and Road initiative.

A few countries have already agreed to use China’s satellite navigation system, including Belarus, Venezuela, and Pakistan.

Since Starlink utilizes geofencing, it will likely turn off internet access once you’re crossing Chinese borders (if border agents even let you in with a Starlink device in the first place).

Additionally, none of the other countries that border China are yet approved for Starlink. The two that are closest, namely Kyrgyzstan and Nepal, are set to welcome Starlink sometime in 2023.

Meanwhile, Mongolia issued a licensed to Starlink back in early July 2023, which prompted Chinese military officials to voice their concerns over potential security breaches.

However, given the dependence Musk’s other companies, in particular, Tesla, have on China, it is extremely unlikely that SpaceX would enable internet access in the country.

As for neighboring states, Starlink is able to implement geofencing, so the ability to access the internet via LEO satellites will solely remain within these neighboring countries.

Can China Block Starlink?

Yes and no. Starlink will not be made available in China. So, from a regulatory perspective, China has the ability to block Starlink within its own country.

However, that blocking ability is limited to its own borders. There is very little China could do to halt Starlink’s existing service in other countries.

That’s because of the way Starlink is set up. Starlink takes advantage of a constellation of thousands of satellites, which roam earth’s low orbit.

The first version (v1.0) of those satellites utilizes ground stations to deliver signals to a customer’s dish. Theoretically, China or any other entity could have destroyed those ground stations and thus put all signals to a halt.

However, Starlink has since introduced v1.5 and v2.0 satellites, which utilize lasers to communicate with each other and the customer’s dishes back down on earth. As a result, ground stations will become increasingly redundant.

Even if one or dozens of those satellites would be shot down, then Starlink would continue to function (albeit with less coverage and bandwidth).

The only way Starlink could theoretically be blocked is through signal jamming. In fact, jamming satellites are now a common tool used during times of war.

But Starlink, as the conflict in Ukraine has shown, is able to circumvent signal jamming attacks simply by updating a few lines of code.

So, while there are theoretical options with how Starlink could be blocked outside of China, it is highly unlikely that the Chinese government would engage in such attacks without being explicitly provoked to do so.

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