Clinton Moves to Implement Sino-U.S. Nuclear Agreement

By Howard Diamond

Following through on his October announcement that China had met the non-proliferation standards demanded by U.S. laws, President Bill Clinton submitted to Congress on January 12 the certifications and reports necessary to activate the Sino-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement that was signed in 1985. In approving the deal, Congress made its implementation contingent on the president certifying that U.S. nuclear materials and technology would only be used by China for peaceful purposes, and that Beijing was no longer assisting any state in acquiring nuclear weapons.

With potentially billions of dollars in nuclear power contracts at stake, congressional action to block nuclear trade with China is unlikely, especially in light of a new pledge made by China's defense minister, General Chi Haotian, to Defense Secretary William Cohen on January 20 that Beijing will end sales of anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran. China has sold Tehran more than 200 C-801 and 25-50 C-802 missiles (which are unconstrained by the Missile Technology Control Regime), and the issue has been a sticking point for legislators disturbed by China's non-proliferation policies. To prevent the agreement from taking effect, both houses of Congress would have to adopt resolutions of disapproval by veto-proof margins within 30 legislative days after the opening of the congressional session on January 27.

With the new pledge on cruise missiles, China's written assurance of October 1997 that it will end nuclear cooperation with Iran, and no evidence that Beijing has violated its May 1996 pledge not to provide assistance to facilities operating without International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, the Clinton administration believes it has made important progress in getting Beijing to address Washington's foremost non-proliferation concerns.

At a Washington policy forum, on January 21, Gary Samore, the non-proliferation director on the National Security Council, rejected criticism that the administration made a bad deal and had sold U.S. non-proliferation objectives short. In particular, certification opponents objected to the administration's decision not to insist that China accept the full-scope safeguards standard of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Unlike the Zangger Committee, which China has joined, NSG member-states condition their nuclear exports on the presence of IAEA monitoring over all of a recipient country's nuclear facilities, and not just at any particular site looking to purchase nuclear materials or technology.

Samore agreed that getting China to join the NSG and adopt its more stringent export standards was desirable, but explained that pressing the issue would have meant forcing Beijing to end its peaceful nuclear cooperation with Pakistan and India—something China said it was unwilling to do. Forcing the full-scope safeguards issue would have been a deal-breaker, Samore said, jeopardizing Washington's primary concern: ending China's nuclear cooperation with Iran. Tehran, as a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has accepted full-scope safeguards and is entitled to civil nuclear cooperation. Ending Beijing's nuclear commerce with Iran has been Washington's top priority since China broached the subject of implementing the nuclar agreement in 1995, he said.

Even though several prominent congressional Republicans, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and House International Affairs Committee chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) have announced their opposition, the chances for reversing the president's decision appear to be slight.

The House International Relations Committee held a hearing on nuclear cooperation with China on February 4, but whether there will be a Senate hearing is not certain. Hearings may be mere formalities though, because according to a Hill staffer, the leadership in both the House and Senate favor certification—or at least are not opposed to it—and without their support, forcing the certification issue to the floor of either chamber is impossible. 

Licensing Procedures

Even after the agreement takes effect (probably sometime between late March and late April, depending on congressional scheduling), nuclear trade with China will still have to go through Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing procedures. The Clinton administration has argued that verification measures agreed upon in a 1987 U.S.-China memorandum of understanding and NRC licensing controls give the United States a continuing source of leverage in case of Chinese backsliding.

Federal regulations governing export licenses for nuclear technology allow the NRC to cancel contracts and revoke licenses if a recipient country violates its cooperation agreement with the United States, assists a non-nuclear-weapon state with activities involving special nuclear materials that have "direct significance" to making nuclear weapons, or agrees to sell reprocessing technology to an unsafeguarded facility. The president can waive the cancellation of a license if he believes the cancellation would jeopardize U.S. non-proliferation objectives or the common defense and security.

At the January policy forum, Walker Roberts, a majority staffer on the House International Relations Committee said Congress will probably reexamine nuclear licensing laws this year with an eye toward providing more opportunities for legislative oversight. One of the ideas being discussed is requiring the administration to certify with each license request that China is abiding by its non-proliferation commitments.