BEIJING — A space partnership between the US, the world's biggest maker of satellites, and China, which provides the lowest-priced launches, would seem to be a match made in heaven.
If China continues to become a more responsible player on the world stage by reducing arms sales to belligerent regimes and by relaxing domestic political controls, say Western officials and experts, its space ties with the US are likely to be broadened.
"For now, there are only minimal government-to-government links in the area of space," says a Western official in Beijing who asked not to be identified. "But there has been tremendous growth in commercial space ties between the two countries."
"Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin agreed to deepen space cooperation during their summit in Washington" last October, says a diplomat in Beijing. "And the US is likely to move slowly toward that goal despite remaining conflicts in the area of space and missiles."
Investigating technology leaks
Last week, Clinton administration officials leaked details of a secret federal investigation into charges that two American satellite makers may have given China restricted rocket technology.
In helping Chinese scientists review the 1996 explosion of a Long March rocket carrying a US-made satellite, Hughes Electronics Corp. and Loral Space & Communications may have passed technical know-how that could help Beijing improve its defense-missile program, said a report in The New York Times on April 4.
"Based on the limited information available, it's hard to tell how serious the breach of American space technology restrictions might have been," says the Western official.
"The vehicles China uses to launch satellites are another version of the missiles it uses to deliver nuclear weapons," says Jonathan Pollack, an expert on the Chinese military at the California-based RAND think tank.
Advances in the space program could similarly be applied to the military program, says the diplomat.
But the Western official says that because President Clinton this year approved technology transfers similar to those under investigation, "they could not seriously affect American security interests."
Although Washington did not recognize Beijing for three decades following the 1949 communist revolution here, "since forming diplomatic ties in 1979, the US and China have been moving away from an adversarial relationship," says the Western official.
"We are now working toward a strategic partnership with China, and technology controls could be eased as Beijing is integrated into the global community," he adds.
Washington tightly restricts Beijing's launching of American satellites under legislation dating from the Chinese Army's 1989 attack on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.
US Undersecretary of State John Holum recently held talks here with government and military leaders on raising launch quotas in return for China's agreement to halt missile sales to Pakistan and Iran.
Easing those restrictions could prove extremely lucrative for Beijing.
China has launched a handful of American satellites since 1990, but last year signed a contract with Motorola's satellite division in Chandler, Ariz., to place 22 telecommunications devices into low earth orbit.
By mid-1998, Motorola aims to complete a man-made constellation of 66 satellites that will orbit the earth to form an extraterrestrial telecommunications web. Motorola's Iridium project "will allow anyone on Earth equipped with a hand-held Iridium telephone to call anyone else at any time," says Motorola spokeswoman Yang Hongqing.
Motorola, the largest foreign investor in China, decided to split launches of the 66 satellites equally among the US Delta program, Russian Proton operators, and China's Long March services "based on launch availability and investors' interests," says Motorola official James Miller.
The ministry-level China Aerospace Corp "agreed to invest in Iridium by providing the launch services for the project," he adds.
"The $5 billion Iridium project is just the first communications network slated to encircle the earth over the next decade," says a space researcher in Beijing.
"There is a lot of money to be made with the commercial revolution in space, and China wants to be poised to profit from any international partnerships," he adds.