CHINA plans within days to launch a powerful new rocket that will sharpen a Sino-American trade dispute over Beijing's commercial space program, aerospace experts say. A successful maiden flight by the Long March 2E rocket would herald China's ascent as a big player in the elite business of satellite launching. It would also give China a robust rocket for most major space projects and strengthen the hand of Chinese officials lobbying for a manned space program, the experts say.
The Long March 2E can lift 19,360 pounds into low earth orbit, or more than the European Space Agency's Ariane 4, the world's most widely used commercial rocket. The two-stage, 169-foot Long March 2E is scheduled to lift off before July 11, Chinese officials say.
The scheduled launch coincides with bilateral talks on July 10 and 11 in which Washington is expected to accuse Beijing of breaking a 1988 pledge to set launch fees similar to those charged by Western companies.
The new rocket ``underscores the necessity on the part of the United States to see that the Chinese live up to their verbal and written [bilateral] agreements to price their launches fairly,'' says Ray Williamson, an expert on space at the US government's Office of Technology Assessment.
Aerospace companies in the US and Europe say that China launches satellites far below the prevailing price in the West. The companies have lobbied against the use of Long March rockets to put US-made satellites into space.
The Western companies aim is to goad China into a cartel that would maintain uniformly high launch prices and hinder China's competitiveness, says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
During the coming talks in Washington the Office of the US Trade Representative is likely to threaten to deny approval for the launching of US-manufactured satellites on Long March rockets if China continues to defy the agreement, say space experts. Such a ban would hobble China's launch business because most commercial satellites are made in the US.
China's fledgling launch program has also come under fire because of the country's human rights abuses.
Citing repression by Beijing, the House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to a trade bill prohibiting exports of US satellites to China.
Moreover, the White House has withheld approval for the 1991 launch in China of a US-made satellite owned by AUSSAT, a company held primarily by the Australian government.
China plans to launch the satellite, dubbed AUSSAT-B, for a price well below the $50 million bottom fee of Western companies. Beijing has also made a bid to put a communications satellite in space for the Arabsat consortium for no more than $30 million, according to the National Space Society in Washington.
The first flight of the Long March 2E is aimed at proving its suitability as the launch vehicle for AUSSAT-B. The rocket will carry a crude mock-up of AUSSAT-B and a 114-pound satellite made by Pakistan, says Mozammil Hussain Awan, a director of Pakistan's nascent satellite program.
At the Xichang Launch Center an ironic blend of water buffalo and rocket boosters - the Iron Age along side the Space Age - underscores how China deploys simple technology and cheap labor to beat the launching services of industrialized countries.
Two gantries rise out of a narrow valley of rice paddies and pastures tended by Yi minority peasants clad in silver bangles and black tunics. Using shoulder poles to carry baskets filled with collard greens, peasants walk along silver pipes that pump liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen into the engines of the Long March 2E.
``Sometimes China's equipment looks crude, but it works,'' says Mr. Awan from the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission of Pakistan.
China's bargain launch service challenges Western companies at a difficult time for commercial space business.
The supply of rockets for commercial launches is likely to exceed demand by 1992. Also, many executives eager to launch payloads for profit worry that earthbound fiber optics will replace satellites as the backbone for communications systems.
Some foreign companies have found China's low prices to be irresistible. A multinational consortium paid $30 million to launch a US-made satellite dubbed AsiaSat aboard a Long March 3 rocket in April.
Although the launch price was far less than what European or US companies would have charged, President Bush approved the export of the satellite noting the many countries in Asia friendly to America that had waited for the satellite service.
Space technicians at Xichang acknowledge that China is waging a quiet price war in order to gain market share.
``We want more clients and so we presently set prices that are only symbolic and rather inexpensive,'' says Li Dequi, director of logistics at the launch center.
``We charge less because so far we haven't been able to compete with others in the world market,'' he says.
Along with precious hard currency, the Long March 2E could give China the power to send astronauts into space, deploy a space station, and achieve other longstanding astronautical goals.
The rocket ``is certainly a step in the direction of China's autonomy in space, of it being able to do anything it wants there,'' says Dr. Logsdon at the Space Policy Institute.
Indeed, technicians at Xichang indicated that China is currently training astronauts. Liang Yaoting, director of mission control, says China plans to launch a manned spaceship as soon as possible after the first flight by the Long March 2E.
As in the past, however, tight finances have apparently prevented Beijing from pursuing bold aims in space. Wei Jinhe, a leading space program administrator in Beijing, denies that China is training astronauts.
Beijing has not yet completed planning for space exploration or committed sufficient funds to the project, says Dr. Wei, director of the Institute of Space Medicine.