DIRECTING passenger aircraft through their corner of Europe's congested skies, the Alenia air traffic controllers working in the dimly lit operations centre at Ciampino Airport in Rome gaze intently at their screens. Talking to the pilots as the radar detects and tracks each aircraft's position, the controllers use computer keyboards to keep the traffic flowing through their sector. The scene is similar to that in air traffic control centres across Europe, and it is one that Alenia would like to see more often in China - one of the few growth regions for the aviation industry. Alenia, 88 per cent owned by the Italian Government, is an aircraft manufacturer - for both military and civilian use - and a provider of navigation, defence and space systems. Mr Giancarlo Fre Torelli, a former air force officer, said the Italian group's sales of high-technology expertise to Asia dated back to 1971 when Thailand became the first Asian country to use an Alenia ATC system. This was followed by similar contracts in China, Hongkong, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and the Philippines. ''We started in China in the mid-1970s. But it wasn't until 1989 that we secured major ATC contracts for civil airports there,'' he said. Since then, Alenia has built up its list of contracts on the mainland to 15, worth a total of US$40 million, including two recent ones in Shenzhen and at Wuhan's Tian-He airport. The two new contracts were obtained through Saphire International ATC Engineering Co - a Beijing-based joint-venture in which Alenia and Hongkong's People's Holding Co, which participates through its subsidiary Dragon Base, both hold a 30 per cent stake. China's RIDA Industrial Group has a 40 per cent shareholding in Saphire. Alenia officials viewed the Shenzhen and Wuhan contracts, together worth US$8 million, as a stepping stone to the huge China market. ''The total aerospace market of China is worth $3 billion,'' Mr Fre Torelli said, adding that everyone was scrambling for a share ''in a big way''. This forecast was based on the country's potential demand for more than 600 airports, its huge area and population, as well as its rapidly growing economy, he added. Alenia also has big hopes for its mainland partner RIDA, which officials believe could help it in any future link-up on the mainland through its ''strong backing''. Radar and systems division marketing manager Giovanni Calalaluna said tenders had been submitted to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and China National Instrument Import and Export Corp for the supply of another 15 ATC systems for civil airports. Results were expected this quarter, he said. Many of Alenia's rivals, such as Thomson-CSF, Hughes Aircraft and Raytheon, are also very active in Asia through their worldwide networks. But Alenia remains optimistic in light of the forecast growth of China's passenger air traffic and is hoping China's civil aviation programme will replace the military sales volume which has been lost elsewhere. As such, Alenia has been quick in its latest move to head for China and Asia in general, where the major potential customers for civil equipment are based. Plans are in the pipeline to establish a regional headquarters in either Hongkong or Singapore, and to open up the aerospace market in the Far East. Mr Fre Torelli said the recent Chinese move shifting the power to control the import of hi-tech products from the army to CAAC meant a higher autonomy for civil airlines. This in turn meant ''an opening of China's aerospace market''. However, seeking a foothold in the region is not easy. Alenia's close rival Thomson-CSF, which Mr Fre Torelli says is ''very aggressive'', has a strong market in Asia. Thomson-CSF is one of three bidders seeking to supply radar systems at Chek Lap Kok airport. The other two are Alenia and Japan's Toshiba. Competition for the 15 ATC contracts in China is also stiff, with bidders including Britain's Marconi and Toshiba. The 15 contracts are among the many long-term plans of China to upgrade radar systems at its civil airports.