Congress Questions U.S. Support for China Joining Nuclear Group

Wade Boese

Several U.S. legislators expressed reservations May 18 about Bush administration support for China’s successful application to join a voluntary regime to coordinate nuclear export control policies, but a top Department of State official sought to allay their concerns by portraying China as working steadily to improve its nonproliferation behavior.

Led by their chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), several House International Relations Committee members voiced their qualms at a hearing on China’s bid to be part of the 40-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Hyde called China one of the world’s “principal sinners” when it comes to proliferation, while the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Tom Lantos of California, said he had a “deep distrust” of China.

Lawmakers pointed to China’s May 4 agreement to supply Pakistan with a second nuclear reactor, to be located at Chashma, as one basis for their concerns. The sale is contrary to NSG guidelines, but Beijing will be free to fulfill the contract because a government is not held accountable by the NSG for any deals completed before it is accepted as a regime member.

In his prepared hearing testimony, Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation John S. Wolf acknowledged, “We would prefer that no such cooperation occur.” He added that Washington is seeking “full information” on the Chinese-Pakistani contract.

At the same time, Wolf defended China’s NSG membership bid, saying, China’s “overall trend in the nuclear area is positive.” He cited its “broad cessation” of nuclear relations with Iran and cooperative role over the past seven years in the informal Zangger Committee, which also aims to regulate nuclear exports.

Wolf admitted that China’s record in controlling chemical weapons and missile exports has been less than desirable but said that should not prevent Beijing from joining the nuclear regime. He argued, “Tying NSG membership to a host of other issues at the last moment would not bring us progress on the other issues.”

Still, Wolf indicated that the administration expects China to be more diligent. “China needs to do a consistently better job in identifying and denying risky exports, seeking out potential violators, and stopping problematic exports at the border,” Wolf testified. If it does not, he cautioned, the administration would not hesitate to impose sanctions on any offending Chinese entities, as it has dozens of times. (See ACT, September 2003.)

Wolf further contended it would be beneficial to have China inside the regime because member states would be in a better position to press fellow-member China on its policies. He said U.S. national interests would benefit if China played by the “same rules as every other nuclear supplier.”

Wolf’s case did not persuade Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who grilled Wolf about the Chinese-Pakistani nuclear reactor deal. “I don’t know if this has been thought out that well,” Ackerman concluded.

The hearing took place a week before the NSG met in Sweden and approved membership for China, as well as Estonia, Lithuania, and Malta. — Wade Boese