Satellite Technology Exports to the People's Republic of China (PRC)

Satellite Technology Exports to the People's Republic of China (PRC)


The issue of satellite technology exports from the United States to the People's Republic of China (PRC) mirrored larger concerns over Chinese espionage that surfaced in the late 1990s. In the case of satellite technology sales, however, United States companies and even some sectors of the federal government favored at least some degree of technology transfer, if only to maintain good relations between the two countries. This was particularly the case after September 11, 2001, as President George W. Bush sought to establish stronger ties with the Chinese in the fight against terrorism. Still, questions remained regarding the advisability of some such transfers, as well as the legality of transfers that had taken place in the mid-1990s and later.

Allegations in the 1990s. During the administration of President William J. Clinton, a number of critics charged that the president had been involved in a scheme to channel funds from the PRC to the Democratic National Committee. Clinton's defenders dismissed the criticism as a partisan attack from the far Right, and while most of the critics were conservatives, not all of them could be dismissed as extremists. An example was the respected columnist William Safire, who wrote in the New York Times on May 18, 1998, that "A president hungry for money to finance his re-election overruled the Pentagon; he sold to a Chinese military intelligence front the technology that defense experts argued would give Beijing the capacity to blind our spy satellites and launch a sneak attack." Complicit Democrats in the Senate, Safire and others charged, had blocked efforts to investigate the illegal transfer of technology.

One particular point of contention was the fact that Clinton had given the Department of Commerce increased jurisdiction over satellite technology transfers. This was significant in light of allegations that a Commerce official, John Huang, had ties to the Chinese. The sale of satellite communications technology to China had first been permitted by President Ronald Reagan, who in September 1988 negotiated a bilateral agreement with the PRC to ensure that no missile or satellite technology was transferred. Over the next four years, the State Department licensed all communications satellites, but as a result of a review conducted by the administration of President George Bush in 1990, licensing jurisdiction for purely commercial satellites was transferred to Commerce. Franklin C. Miller, Principal Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Threat Reduction, testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in September 1998, that Defense had supported this act because it "was accompanied by several changes in procedures that protect Department of Defense's ability to ensure that transfers are consistent with U.S. national security."

Despite this testimony, Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center maintained that Clinton had gone much further than his predecessors. In testimony before a joint hearing of the House International Relations Committee and the House National Security Committee in June 1998, he maintained that "this shift has eliminated systematic government monitoring of prelaunch conversations between U.S. contractors and Chinese space firms and, according to the General Accounting Office, marginalized the previously important licensing input of the Defense Department." As though to underscore Sokolski's point, it was later revealed that in 1996, Loral Space & Communications Corporation had forwarded a report on a Chinese rocket to the Chinese government without first obtaining State Department clearance, a situation that led to a grand jury investigation.

A change of course in the 2000s. A concern similar to that involving Loral erupted in late 2002, when the State Department accused Hughes Electronic Corporation of providing the Chinese with key information to assist them in determining why their rockets tended to fail soon after launch. The incident had occurred in the 1990s, according to the State Department—in other words, at the high point of concerns over the transfer of sensitive satellite technology to the PRC. Although the State Department threatened fines of up to $60 million, by the time the charges came to light, the situation with regard to satellite technology transfers to the PRC had changed.

This change did not so much involve security as it did commerce—specifically, an increased demand by U.S. aerospace companies to relax restrictions on transfers. The change created some strange political bedfellows: joining fellow California representative Howard L. Berman, a Democrat, in putting forward the proposal was Dana Rohrbacher, a Republican who had opposed the Clinton-era transfer of licensing authority to Commerce. Yet, in 2001, Rohrbacher—whose constituency, like that of Berman, had a strong aerospace presence—supported the very measure he had condemned three years earlier. Just as Berman and Rohrbacher constituted a bipartisan team, they found themselves opposed from both sides of the aisle. Not only Republican senators Jesse Helms and Richard Shelby, but also Democratic representative Tom Lantos of California, maintained that the move posed security risks.

By that time, however, the tides had shifted, and the move to increase sales of satellite technology to China gained momentum. In April 2002 the State Department loosened rules on export of scientific satellite projects to the PRC. Six months later, as Chinese head of state Jiang Zemin met with President George W. Bush at the latter's ranch in Texas, the two discussed the possibility of easing bans on the transfer of satellite technology, provided China reduced its sales of missile technology to third parties. The leaders did not reach an agreement, however, and debate continued. On March 28, 2003, during the U.S. military effort against Iraq, a missile fired by the Iraqis hit a shopping mall in Kuwait, a country aligned with the United States in the war. The weapon was a modified Chinese-made Silkworm rocket.



Lawler, Andrew. "Rules Eased on Satellite Projects." Science. 296, no. 5566 (April 12, 2002): 237–238.

Marquand, Robert. "As War Looms, U.S. Talks to China." Christian Science Monitor. (October 21, 2002): 6.

Marquis, Christopher. "Some Lawmakers Urging U.S. to Speed Exports of Satellites." New York Times. (July 9,2001): A7.

Safire, William. "China Syndrome: Clinton's Greed for Funds Triggers a Security Meltdown." New York Times. (May 18, 1998): A19.


Defense DAS Miller on Technology Transfers to China. U.S. Department of State. < > (March 29, 2003).

Sokolski, Henry. U.S. Satellite Technology Transfers to China: What's at Issue, Questions and Answers. Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. < > (March 29, 2003).


Chinese Espionage against the United States
Satellites, Non-Governmental High Resolution
Satellites, Spy

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Satellite Technology Exports to the People's Republic of China (PRC) forum