Clinton Steps Up Effort To Enact 1985 Sino-U.S. Nuclear Agreement

IN ANTICIPATION of the October 29 summit in Washington between President Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, U.S. and Chinese officials have been working to improve Beijing's non proliferation credentials, once again under attack in Congress and key to the long delayed implementation of a Sino U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement. The 1985 agreement, potentially worth billions of dollars to the U.S. nuclear industry in the coming years, has never been activated because successive administrations have been unable to certify to Congress that China is not assisting proliferant states in acquiring nuclear weapons.

With the Clinton administration apparently moving closer to making that determination, possibly as the centerpiece of the Washington summit, the Chinese government has sought in recent weeks to address U.S. concerns about its nuclear and ballistic missile cooperation with Iran and Pakistan, its weak export control system and its commitment to international non proliferation norms. In July, Beijing's proliferation record was called into question when an unclassified CIA report labeled China as "the most significant supplier of [weapons of mass destruction] related goods and technology to foreign countries" during the second half of 1996.

While it is unclear whether China's recent actions will finally open the door to Sino U.S. nuclear commerce or deflect congressional moves to change Beijing's behavior by threatening sanctions, the Sino U.S. non proliferation dialogue appears to be moving forward. In late July, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that China would formally join the Zangger Committee at its next meeting in mid October. China is the only declared nuclear weapon state that is not a member of the 31 nation exporters group, which provides a so called "trigger list" to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of sensitive nuclear items that would require safeguards under the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if transferred to a non nuclear weapon state.

Unlike the related Nuclear Suppliers Group (which China has refused to join), whose members require "full scope" safeguards (coverage of all of a nations nuclear facilities by the IAEA) as a condition for the transfer of nuclear materials or technology, Zangger Committee members may transfer trigger list items to safeguarded facilities in countries that also possess unsafeguarded facilities (for example, India, Israel and Pakistan). Beijing reportedly has conditioned its Zangger membership on the continuation of the committee's current export rules.

Some observers believe that China might use this more relaxed standard to assist unsafeguarded facilities—especially those in Pakistan—by using legitimate transfers as a cover and conduit for illicit sales. China's long standing nuclear supply relationship with Pakistan has been a significant impediment to the implementation of the Sino U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement.

U.S. officials have also been pressing China to end its nuclear cooperation with Tehran, as part of the Clinton administration's policy to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons by obstructing its civil nuclear commerce. Although Iran remains an NPT party in good standing, administration officials argue that even peaceful nuclear activities¾which Iran is entitled to pursue under the treaty¾provide skills and experience that aid Tehran in its drive to develop nuclear weapons. China has reportedly already cancelled plans to build a uranium conversion plant (for the production of uranium hexafluoride, a gas used in isotope separation processes) and a research reactor in Iran, though it is unclear whether Beijing's actions are due to U.S. pressure or Tehran's financial difficulties.

As part of China's effort to improve its non proliferation credentials, China's State Council, or cabinet, issued new rules on September 11 governing the sale of nuclear technology. The new export controls, which formalize a 1996 commitment to the United States to halt transfers to unsafeguarded facilities, mandate government review and licensing of all sales of nuclear technology and materials, and require end use guarantees from recipient countries.

China has also responded positively to Washington's concerns about the diversion of a U.S. supercomputer delivered in February to the China Scientific Institute in Beijing, but subsequently transferred to the Changsha Institute of Science and Technology, operated by the Chinese military. Beijing has agreed to return the computer, capable of 2,700 million theoretical operations per second, to the manufacturer, Sun Microsystems in California.

Despite the apparent upswing in Sino U.S. proliferation relations, congressional critics of the administration's "constructive engagement" policy continue to seek legislative means to change China's policies on proliferation and human rights.

Most recently, on September 12 Senator Spencer Abraham (R MI) and eight co sponsors, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R NC), introduced the "China Policy Act of 1997." The legislation includes a number of provisions containing sanctions authority against Chinese officials and companies, and would tighten U.S. export controls on supercomputers that were relaxed by the administration in 1995.