China, hoping to take advantage of what the Reagan administration calls a "more liberal U.S. export policy" toward Peking, announced yesterday that it has signed a contract with an American company for a ground satellite tracking station.
Aware that transfers of high technology have been blocked by U.S. authorities in the past because of their possible military application, China intends to press Secretary of State George P. Shultz during his visit to Peking next month to secure U.S. government approval for the sale, an official of the company said yesterday.
The station would allow China to receive agricultural and geological information from the U.S. Landsat network of Earth-monitoring satellites.
While Landsat's information--intended for such civilian purposes as farming, forestry, mining, transportation and long-term weather prediction--has "no direct military application," according to an industry official, news agencies quoted U.S. officials in Peking as saying that the station's sophisticated computers and other equipment conceivably could be used for military purposes.
The official New China News Agency disclosed the contract yesterday, quoting the Chinese Academy of Sciences as saying that it had been signed last month and would be delivered shortly. It did not say where the station would be located, but Agence France-Presse quoted reliable western sources in Peking as saying it probably would be built about 65 miles from Peking.
Systems and Applied Sciences Corp., a Riverdale, Md., company that has experienced phenomenal growth in the past four years, confirmed yesterday that it signed a contract with China to build the station, which will cost about $10 million to $12 million, according to Ashok Kaveeshwar, vice president of the company's scientific systems division.
Although the contract was signed Dec. 7, Kaveeshwar said, it does not become effective until later this month, and at that point the company will apply for an export license.
"It's very difficult to say" whether opposition to the transfer will be raised by the Pentagon or congressional critics of the export of U.S. high technology, Kaveeshwar said, adding that in recent trips to China he has been told that "the Chinese will bring it up" with Shultz while he is there for an official visit scheduled to begin Feb. 2.
Shultz's visit will come at a difficult time in U.S.-Chinese trade relations, with Peking irritated about U.S. moves to impose a ceiling on textile imports. China, at the same time, has indicated that its chief trading interests are in the fields of energy and technology.
U.S. officials had no comment on the sale yesterday, except for a State Department official's statement that "several years ago we said we'd grant permission" for U.S. firms to sell a ground satellite station to China.
The issue now, according to Kaveeshwar, is likely to be "just what constitutes" a tracking station. Without going into detail, he said China has asked for only the "customary" package that makes up such stations in other countries.
Both the Carter administration, in an agreement signed with Peking in January 1979, and the Reagan administration had approved the sale of such a station in the past, but China's economic problems forced it to delay this and other purchases.
In September the Reagan administration signaled further relaxation of U.S. trade policy toward Peking, reversing past policy and approving shipment of a sophisticated computer system used here for highly accurate simulation of missile flights.
Then on Oct. 8, the Commerce Department notified industry that it was "now prepared to issue export licenses to interested vendors" for sale of ground satellite stations to China.
It invited manufacturers to look at new "guidelines" for such sales that it said "reflect a more liberal U.S. export policy toward China adopted by the Reagan administration."
Systems and Applied Sciences, which has been listed by Black Enterprise magazine in recent years as among the largest black-owned firms in the nation, has grown from annual sales of $5.7 million in 1979 to more than $40 million last year.
Kaveeshwar said the contract with China would be the first significant international venture for the company, which in the past has worked on many projects for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.