An ongoing sale of communications satellites to a Hong Kong–based company is attracting a great deal of attention at the moment.
Space Systems/Loral, a major U.S. satellite manufacturer, contracted in 2011 to manufacture two communications satellites, AsiaSat-6 and AsiaSat-8, for Asia Satellite Telecommunications (AsiaSat). The contract was initialed soon after AsiaSat-7, another Loral communications satellite, was successfully placed into orbit. And Loral contracts for AsiaSat date back further still.
AsiaSat-7, like AsiaSat-6, is a communications satellite equipped with both C-band (commercial telecommunications) and Ku-band (commonly associated with video feeds) transponders. AsiaSat-8 seems to be optimized for high-bandwidth communications, as it appears to be entirely equipped with Ku-band transponders.
The disquiet expressed in various quarters is that the Administration is engaging in active cooperation in space affairs with the Chinese—contrary to the prohibition on cooperation Congress enacted last year. Given the Administration’s refusal to discuss the results from NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s October 2010 visit to China and the insistence of John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, that the Administration reserved the right to engage China in space, such concerns are warranted.
Moreover, while AsiaSat is a Hong Kong company, there is little question that Beijing can have influence, as one of the company’s major shareholders is a subsidiary of the mainland firm China International Trust and Investment Corporation.
However, the waiver means that the sale itself does not appear to jeopardize any of the current sanctions regimes (e.g., Tiananmen sanctions) or violate current export control laws. The entire AsiaSat fleet of satellites (with four currently in orbit) has been American-made, with waivers granted by the three previous Administrations. This makes some sense. Another major AsiaSat shareholder is General Electric.
Moreover, AsiaSat-7 was launched by a Proton from a Russian launch site, and the same will likely be true for AsiaSat-6 and AsiaSat-8. Thus, no satellite will be physically shipped to China for launching by the PRC, a part of the problem of the Loral-Hughes satellite scandals involving China in the 1990s.
What is unclear is why this is happening right now. It is odd, given that the Administration is currently striving to reform export control laws so as to ease cooperation with key allies and boost the American economy. Raising this issue now seems self-defeating. It gives rise to questions about whether the new export control laws will allow sales of defense and other high technologies to the PRC, questions the Administration has been trying for months to answer in the negative.