A leading Chinese space engineer says the United States is holding up the delivery of satellite technology to his country because it fears the hardware could be diverted to military purposes.
Chuan-shan Wang, the chief engineer at China's Space Science and Technology Center in Peking, says his country reached agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on the sale of a ground station that would receive pictures from the US's latest remote-sensing satellite, Landsat 4. Under the agreement, China was to purchase the equipment from US private industry.
But then, according to Mr. Wang, other agencies of the US government stepped in to block the necessary export licenses. Wang made his comments during a recent conference on the international aspects of science and technology in Rome. He was a member of a large Chinese delegation invited by the Italian government.
According to Mr. Wang, the main problem lies in obtaining from the US tracking equipment and computers for recording data from the spacecraft.
A spokeswoman for NASA denied that there had been any holdup in granting export licenses. She said, however, that the Defense Department had been involved in deliberations over whether sale of equipment should be allowed. A firm called Systems and Applied Sciences Corporation, based near Washington, has had discussions with the Chinese on providing the hardware.
It appears that Pentagon officials, already worried about the transfer of military technology to the Soviet bloc, are concerned about the proposed sale to China for two reasons. First, the computers and other electronic equipment that form a vital part of ground station equipment could be adapted for military purposes.
Since its first launch in 1970, China has put into space 12 satellites. Western experts say that three of the satellites launched between 1975 and 1978 were for military reconnaissance. For example, they would have watched for troop movements along China's borders with the USSR and India.
The second reason for the fears of American defense officials concerns what observers believe is the nature of the Landsat 4 itself. This craft carries a sensitive new instrument which can provide pictures of the earth with a resolution of 30 meters. According to some space experts the new sensor, called the thematic mapper, may be useful in providing detailed information about military targets.
Such arguments have cropped up with the earlier versions of Landsat and are bound to become more powerful as a result of the more detailed pictures that the latest vehicle can produce.
For some years, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has tried to work out a formula for defining whether a remote-sensing satellite provides information that is useful militarily. The current consensus is that satellite pictures with a resolution better than between 25 meters and 40 meters can provide this kind of data.
Selling the Chinese equipment with which they could receive such information could affect the balance of power in central Asia. It could make it easier for China to find out about rocket emplacements and troop movements in the southern part of the Soviet Union.
Other countries could also protest the satellite would give China information about their territories.