President Bush has decided to approve a controversial plan in which Soviet rockets would launch U.S.-made commercial satellites from a space center on the coast of Australia, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday.

For now the move has little practical impact, because the Australian facility has not been built and may never be. But it marks a major policy step toward a potentially important new area of U.S.-Soviet technical and economic cooperation.

In the past, the United States has refused to allow U.S. payloads aboard Soviet rockets. Officials feared militarily sensitive technology would be compromised if advanced satellites were shipped to the Soviet Union for launch.

They also worried that Soviet launches, if offered at prices well below those of the three U.S. companies that now provide rides into space, would constitute unfair state-subsidized competition in a crucial field of technology.

Liftoff from Australia is meant to address the security concerns, because satellites would never enter the Soviet Union. U.S. government satellites would continue to be launched only from U.S. sites.

The president has not yet approved the project officially. But last week, the Space Council, an advisory body headed by Vice President Quayle, sent Bush a draft policy that would commit the federal government to nurture the U.S. commercial space industry while allowing competition. Newcomers would have to compete by certain rules and not offer such things as subsidized prices.

In addition to clearing launches of U.S. satellites from Australia, the draft appears to open the way for a U.S. company to run the space center there. United Technologies Corp. is seeking that contract, but the request is still pending.

Despite safeguards, the new policy could be seen by U.S. rocket companies as a defeat.

Alvin A. Spivak, Washington spokesman for General Dynamics Corp., which offers commercial launches on the Atlas booster, said, "We hope that the decision in its details will protect the competitive position of American firms."

The move raises many of the issues in a 1989 White House decision to allow China to use its Long March booster to launch U.S.-made satellites. The Long March has launched one U.S.-made payload, a communications satellite for a Hong Kong-based consortium known as Asiasat.

National security adviser Brent Scowcroft sought to play down the significance of the Australian project, pointing out that launch centers exist elsewhere. "This is just another one," he said on Cable News Network show "Newsmaker Sunday."

Baker's remarks, made on ABC News' "This Week with David Brinkley," confirmed an article in yesterday's New York Times. "The president has made a decision that an initial launch will go forward," he said, but that appeared to misstate the status of the project.

Plans call for a $500 million spaceport to be constructed at Cape York, Australia. The location, 12 degrees from the equator, makes it an attractive spot for space shots. The Soviet rocket used would be the Zenit, a well-tested, medium-sized booster.

Cape York would be privately funded and operated, marking an important new step in the commercialization of space. But because of cost and the uncertain prospects of competing against government-run space facilites elsewhere, nothing has yet been built and some analysts feel the project will not get off the ground.

Proponents of letting the Soviets into the market argue that as President Mikhail Gorbachev pushes forward with liberalization, increased U.S.-Soviet technological exchange is inevitable and launches would help shore up the Soviet economy.

Other proponents argue that if the United States stays out of the project, the Europeans or Japanese will step in. British Aerospace of the United Kingdom, for instance, is reported to be competing against United Technologies to run the Cape York facility.

United Technologies contends that the only flow of knowledge will be from the Soviet Union out. Employees of the U.S. company will go there to learn how to service the Zenits, attach payloads and launch the rockets, said Andrea Shea-King, spokeswoman for USBI Co., the United Technologies subsidiary that would do the job.

"They are going to deliver the rockets and we are going to process them," she said. No Soviet personnel would be present at the Cape York center, she said.

Critics, however, argue the Soviets will subsidize the rocket, giving Cape York an unfair advantage that would do serious harm to General Dynamics and the other U.S. companies involved in commercial satellite launches: Martin Marietta Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Corp.

Some critics also focus on security concerns, saying that even if the launches take place in Australia, the Soviets still will get valuable information about the design and capabilities of U.S. satellites.