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China attacks Elon Musk, US for ‘close encounters’ with new Chinese space station

Tesla CEO Elon Musk (Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)
December 29, 2021

China criticized the U.S. and Elon Musk this week for SpaceX’s alleged close encounters with China’s under-construction space station.

During a regular press briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao claimed satellites belonging to the private U.S. space company SpaceX had passed close to China’s Tiangong space station in July and October. China launched the first part of the space station in April and sent three astronauts to the station for a three-month mission in June.

“I can confirm that Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX of the US had two close encounters with the China Space Station in July and October this year respectively when Chinese astronauts were working there,” Zhao said. “For safety considerations, the China Space Station implemented preventive collision avoidance control.”

Zhao responded to a report from the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space that China sent a note to the U.N. Secretary-General informing him of the two close encounters and the threat posed by the encounters. Zhao said China sent the notice on December 3 through its Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Vienna and acted out of concern for the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

“The U.S. claims to be a strong advocate of the concept of ‘responsible behavior in outer space,’ but it disregarded its Treaty obligations and posed a grave threat to the safety of astronauts,” Zhao said. “This is typical double standard.”

“China is committed to peaceful uses of space,” he continued. “The US should respect international order in space based on international law, take prompt measures to prevent such incidents from recurring, and act responsibly to safeguard the safety of in-orbit astronauts and the safe and steady operation of space facilities.”

According to Voice of America, China’s complaint about SpaceX’s activities near the Taingong space station prompted criticism of the company and its owner on the Chinese Twitter alternative, Weibo.

“How ironic that Chinese people buy Tesla, contributing large sums of money so Musk can launch Starlink, and then he (nearly) crashes into China’s space station,” one Weibo user said, referring to one of Musk’s other companies, the Tesla electric car company.

“Prepare to boycott Tesla,” another Weibo user said. China has frequently boycotted foreign companies that run afoul of Chinese government interests.

Tesla itself has faced criticism in China in recent months. In May, Tesla agreed to store Chinese user data in China, following complaints from Chinese regulators that the data could pose a threat to the country’s national security. In July, Chinese regulators ordered a recall of more than 285,000 Tesla vehicles sold in the country, citing a safety issue.

SpaceX’s close encounters with the Tiangong space station could add strain to relations between China and Musk’s other companies.