China plans controversial space project in Europe – economy

The company that wants to stand up to Elon Musk and create new power in space consists of little more than a Liechtenstein letterbox. It has no own offices, no employees, not even a website, and the balance sheet for 2019 shows equity of just under 25,000 Swiss francs. Fixed assets, tangible and financial fixed assets – zero. Trion Space AG is a “micro enterprise”; so their officials checked it in the form for the registration court. It is all the more strange that she pursues gigantic plans.

The letterbox company, located with a trustee in the center of Vaduz, is a central part of an opaque business network with which German, but especially Chinese, investors want to establish a vast space project in the middle of Europe. . In the first phase, 288 satellites are to be launched into space; so much later. We are talking about an investment volume equivalent to four billion euros, to begin with. But there is great mistrust of the project. Because the money and parts of the technology are expected to come from state-controlled companies in China, the trail leads to the country’s military. Experts fear that Beijing will establish a technological foothold in Europe and thus pursue hegemonic, if not military, interests. An accusation that those involved in the project reject.

The 38,000 inhabitants of the Alpine Principality discovered in the spring the plans that had been brewing behind the scenes since 2014. “Liechtenstein is becoming a satellite”, he suddenly said in large advertisements, next to it was the globe around which orbit a satellite. Gradually it became clear that these were communications satellites, which are supposed to orbit the earth at an altitude of about 1000 kilometers, in low earth orbit (LEO), as experts call the eye sockets there. Trion Space AG and its partner companies want to install a satellite internet system there, through which companies in particular can ideally communicate with the most remote corners of the earth in real time using huge amounts of data. Without land lines with nodes or interfaces, allegedly making data exchange more secure against eavesdropping. Industrial companies could use it to control their production facilities all over the world, and banks, transport companies or logisticians could communicate globally.

The technology of the future is not gaining momentum in Europe

The technological utility of such satellite systems is just as low among experts as their economic utility. Tesla founder Elon Musk is already pursuing such projects with his space company Space-X; The project is called “Starlink”. An Indo-British consortium and Canadian investors are also working on the future technology. In Europe, however, it has yet to gain momentum, which EU Commissioner responsible Thierry Breton, in office since December 2019, said has changed.

The Liechtenstein project seems to be useful. Even though the small state is not a member of the EU, it is geographically located in the center of the continent. As a sovereign state, the Principality has the right to radio frequencies, without which such a fleet of satellites cannot function. These are awarded by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) based in Geneva, the United Nations organization specializing in telecommunications. Such radio frequencies are rare and therefore in great demand. Liechtenstein had not yet called its quota, which is why at least the interim allocation was not a problem when the Vaduz Communication Office (AfK) presented to ITU in 2014.

The authority, in turn, had received a corresponding request from a predecessor company of Trion Space. The country, characterized by finance and industry, is in principle open to the satellite idea. “We hope this will also be a huge step forward in terms of digitization,” an insider told Vaduz. In the specific case, however, “doubts quickly arose as to whether the initiators could manage the project technologically and financially.” In the beginning, you mainly had to deal with German participants, for example EightyLEO, which is based in Grünwald near Munich, but especially with its subsidiary Kleo Connect GmbH. The latter joined the project as an operational partner and founded a subsidiary in Liechtenstein, Kleo AG. It has to install the satellite control center there, while Trio Space appears as the requestor of the frequencies and wishes to manage the rights of use in the future.

What was lacking from the start was the necessary capital. While looking for investors for the sky storm in Liechtenstein, its initiators found what they were looking for in China in 2018. Financiers mainly from Shanghai therefore got on board. They took over the majority of participating companies such as Kleo Connect and placed their employees in key positions, for example on the board of directors of Trio Space AG. Gradually, a barely transparent network of companies emerged. The main alleged financier is the state-owned company Shanghai Alliance Investment (SAIL). It has a 42% stake in Shanghai Spacecom Satellite Technology (SSSI), which is to build the necessary satellites and reserve the launchers needed for their transport into space.

“The satellite project is for civilian and communications use only.”

A company called SECM is at the origin of the SSSI. According to a spokesperson, the company will act as a satellite partner. There appear to be close ties between the SECM and the Chinese military. “More than a dozen of SECM’s top researchers have worked in the official military-run space program, received military and defense research grants or even have military training,” the regional Vaduzer Zeitung Wirtschaft found. . The SECM is an “important part of the military-civil merger”. Your boss and his deputy come from a university in the Chinese military and have worked on military research programs in the aerospace field, the newspaper continues.

Those involved dismiss the suspicion that a Chinese beachhead with military training is about to emerge in the middle of Europe. “The satellite project is for civilian and communications use only,” an SSSI spokesperson said on request. “Military use is totally excluded and legally prohibited under the rules of the ITU, which allocates and controls the frequencies.” However, he could not give details “for legal reasons”. German company Kleo connect GmbH left an SZ request unanswered. The administrator of Vaduz, who manages Trion Space AG and also acts as chairman, categorically ruled out “hidden or inappropriate use” in relation to Wirtschaft regional. Incidentally, the state of Liechtenstein would be able to press a red button at any time and restrict or completely shut down the satellite system, he said.

But you don’t want to let it go that far. Usually, the principality is a very favorable country for investors. But Vaduz is far from signaling the orbital project. Relations between the West and China have cooled too much in recent years, it is said behind closed doors, and the fear in the Principality of being unwittingly harnessed to the cart of Chinese interests is too great. The opaque conditions of the project leader do the rest. In the meantime, the German participants in the project are also bickering with their Chinese partners. The office responsible for communication in Liechtenstein does not wish to issue an opinion referring to the “ongoing procedure”. As an applicant, Trion Space AG requires a well-founded business plan. The authority and the operator of the project are now also arguing before the administrative court.

The Astronomical Working Group has already clearly positioned itself in the Principality. The volunteer amateur astronomers warn against the project, they fear “enormous costs and enormous damage to the image of Liechtenstein”. And what’s more, too much space debris is already flying in low earth orbit.

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