The Mongolia-SpaceX deal has caused a security stir in China

Mongolia’s recent decision to use SpaceX’s Starlink internet services has raised security concerns across the border with China, both as a potential military threat and a possible way around Beijing’s strict censorship regime on what it deems “harmful” foreign websites.

On July 6, Mongolia’s Communications Regulatory Commission issued special licenses for SpaceX, founded by American billionaire tycoon Elon Musk, to operate as a service provider using low-orbit satellites and for Starlink to provide internet services in the country.

The decision, part of the country’s ongoing digital transformation and New Recovery Policy, was announced ahead of the annual Mongolia Economic Forum 2023 held on July 9-10.

“A network of fiber optic cables already provides widespread access to high-speed internet throughout Mongolia,” Minister for Digital Development and Communications Uchral Nyam-Osor said on July 7.

“But Starlink technology will provide greater access to hard-to-reach areas of the country. Herdsmen, farmers, businesses and miners living and working in our vast country will be able to access and use information from around the world to improve their lives,” the minister said.

Currently, people in China cannot access foreign websites blocked by the Golden Shield Project, also known as the “Great Firewall of China,” unless they use virtual personal networks (VPNs). China has not adopted Starlink internet services due to national security concerns.

Some Chinese pundits have an alarmist view of the satellite deal.

“Mongolia is our neighbor. Satellite cannot provide its services in one area and quickly draw a line and stop providing them elsewhere,” said Chen Jiesen, a Shanghai-based commentator, in his vlog. “Network capacity can easily spill over to nearby areas. Will it break our Great Firewall?”

Chen said although Starlink promises not to cross the line, it already plans to provide services to Mongolia and Pakistan, neighbors of Inner Mongolia and China’s Xinjiang region, respectively. He wrote that if disruptive social events occur in any neighbor, the related news can influence people in China through Starlink services.

He also said that, with Starlink’s autonomous services, countries using its services cannot decide to shut down internet services in such situations.

Some Chinese commentators have said that Starlink’s dual-use satellite could pose a threat to China’s information and national security, especially in times of war.

A Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Starlink 4-27 payload launches from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on August 19, 2022. Photo: US Space Force / Joshua Conti

SpaceX did not immediately respond to Asia Times’ request for comment.

A spokesperson for the Mongolian Ministry of Digital Development and Communications insisted, however, that the use of Starlink services would not affect Mongolia’s relations with neighboring states.

“Communication infrastructure and cross-border connections are governed by international agreements agreed upon by all countries, including Mongolia and its neighboring states,” the spokesperson said. “These agreements serve as a foundation for the development of cooperation and understanding among the countries involved.”

He said Mongolia maintains friendly bilateral relations with its neighbors and has the utmost respect for the sovereignty of all countries.

“As for China, it has established its own regulations and monitoring mechanisms regarding such technologies,” he said. “Buyers in China will be governed by their own jurisdiction in accordance with their country’s laws and regulations.”

He said the government of Mongolia has openly extended an invitation to all low-orbit connectivity providers to explore market opportunities within the country and Starlink was chosen because it was the first to enter the market.

Beijing’s warning

As of May this year, Starlink has built a rapidly growing network of more than 4,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). The company has plans to boost that number to 42,000 by mid-2027.

Its services have so far been adopted by at least 32 countries with holdouts including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Iran, according to a company map.

Starlink internet services will be available in most Asian countries, except China and North Korea. Image: starlink.com/map

In May last year, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, a newspaper run by China’s military, published an article titled, “Beware of Starlink’s barbaric expansion and military application.”

“Although Starlink says it provides high-speed internet services for civil use, it has a deep background related to the US military,” the article said. “One of its launch centers is located inside the US Vandenberg Air Force Base and it has tested a secure connection between its satellites and US Air Force fighter jets.”

The article said Starlink satellites could bolster US military power, including through satellite-enabled remote sensing, communications, navigation and positioning capabilities.

Last October, Musk told a Financial Times editor that Beijing had sought assurances that he would not sell Starlink to China.

“Starlink is the backbone of the Ukrainian army’s command and control system on the Ukrainian battlefield, and China also needs to have this capability,” said a military writer based in Jiangxi. The safety factor and communication capabilities that come with having thousands of Starlink satellites far outweighs relying on a few large satellites, he said.

The writer emphasized that, since high-speed data transmission is essential in wartime, China’s demand for communication satellites will continue to increase. He said China has built a 5G network locally and will build a low-orbit satellite network to serve countries on the Belt and Road.

On July 9, China successfully launched its first low-orbit satellite that can provide internet services, Xinhua reported.

Mongolia’s ‘crazy idea’

Apart from Starlink, Mongolia is seeking to form a partnership with Musk’s Tesla, the world’s largest electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer.

On June 7, Mongolia’s Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai asked Musk in a virtual meeting to begin research on using Mongolia’s copper and rare earth elements to produce Teslas in the country. He says that, although this idea seems crazy at the moment, it can work.

He also proposed the establishment of a scholarship program to train Mongolia’s information technology (IT) engineers.

Mongolia’s government says the introduction of Starlink is the first phase of its ambitious and wide-ranging program to build a space economy. It said it is strengthening cooperation with G7 countries to explore cooperation opportunities related to space for peaceful purposes, including communication satellites.

Mongolian Parliament Speaker Gombojavyn Zandanshatar told Asia Times in an interview that during this year’s Mongolia Economic Forum, the government also partnered with London-based What3Words, which operates a geocode system that will help streamline postal services and highlight tourism areas.

Mongolian Parliament Speaker Gombojavyn Zandanshatar Photo: Mongolian Government

To attract more foreign investment, the government will also build a private partnership center and an investment and trade agency, Zandanshatars said, adding that Parliament is committed to revising the Draft Law on Investment.

“China is a particularly important trading partner for Mongolia, representing 82% of our exports by 2021,” he said. “Further investment in this partnership from our side will ensure the success of our long-term development policies.”

He stressed that Mongolia will continue to create an environment that welcomes responsible foreign investors in all sectors and ensures that they are given the same level of treatment as local businesses.

Read: Interview: Mongolian ministers have revival plan

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Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3


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