CLAIMING THAT China has made a marked improvement in its non proliferation behavior, President Bill Clinton announced on October 29 during his summit meeting in Washington with Chinese President Jiang Zemin that he will soon submit to Congress the package of certifications needed to activate the never implemented 1985 Sino U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement. The president's announcement marked a milestone in the administration's much criticized policy of engagement with China, and capped two years of intense diplomatic efforts to improve China's non proliferation credentials. Once in effect, the bilateral nuclear accord could mean billions of dollars worth of new contracts to U.S. firms eager to enter China's potentially enormous nuclear market.
For the 1985 agreement to take effect, the president must make two certifications regarding the security and future use of U.S. origin materials and a third verifying that, on the basis of all available information, China is not assisting any non nuclear weapon state in acquiring nuclear weapons and that Beijing has provided "clear and unequivocal assurances" that it is not currently providing such assistance and will not do so in the future. Also required by law is a report to congressional leaders detailing the history and current developments in China's non proliferation policies and practices.
At a background briefing following Clinton's announcement, senior administration officials identified five areas where changes in Beijing's proliferation behavior justified the president's decision to provide the certifications. The most dramatic of these changes occurred during the summit when the two sides reached agreement on a document stating that China would not engage in new nuclear cooperation with Iran, and would end all such cooperation once it completes two nuclear projects now underway: the construction of a "zero power" research reactor at the Esfahan Nuclear Research Center and a plant that will produce the zirconium cladding used in nuclear fuel elements.
Even though Iran is a member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is entitled to peaceful nuclear cooperation, the Clinton administration has sought to prevent all international nuclear trade with Tehran on the grounds that even peaceful nuclear activities will aid Iran's clandestine efforts to acquire nuclear weapons in violation of the NPT. The summit pledge may finally put to rest fears that China would provide Iran with a uranium hexaflouride conversion facility, technology necessary to enrich uranium. However, the exact nature of Beijing's commitment regarding Iran is still unclear because China's "authoritative written communication" was provided on the condition it not be made public. U.S. officials said the secrecy was necessary to get the specific reference to Iran, but stated that members of Congress would be able to review the actual document.
Second, U.S. officials highlighted China's continued adherence to its May 1996 pledge not to provide assistance to nuclear facilities that operate without monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Beijing made the pledge to avoid U.S. sanctions that could have resulted from its 1995 sale to Pakistan of 5,000 ring magnets, used in enrichment of uranium. At the summit, U.S. officials raised concerns about "contacts" occurring between certain Chinese and Pakistani individuals, but came away convinced that China had not violated its commitment.
Third, on October 16, Beijing joined the Zangger Committee, a 31 nation nuclear suppliers' arrangement whose members condition the supply of nuclear specific materials and technology on the presence of IAEA safeguards at the transferred items' destination. The Zangger Committee also provides NPT member states with the "trigger list" of materials and technologies requiring IAEA monitoring as a condition for supply.
Fourth, U.S. officials pointed to the adoption in September by China's State Council, or cabinet, of a set of comprehensive export control regulations for nuclear materials and technologies as well as a commitment by Beijing to add new regulations on dual use items by mid 1998. The new Chinese regulations follow months of vigorous diplomacy and working level meetings with U.S. officials who provided copies of U.S. laws and suggested approaches the Chinese might consider in creating an effective export control system that would meet the requirements for U.S. certification.
Finally, the Clinton administration argued that China's growing support for and participation in major multilateral arms control agreements deserves recognition. Since joining the NPT in 1992, Beijing has promised to adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), supported the indefinite extension of the NPT, and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Beijing has also supported efforts to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty at the UN Conference on Disarmament, the recent strengthening of the IAEA's inspection authority, and the U.S. led effort to eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons potential.
During the summit, U.S. officials also sought additional assurances from China that it would stop selling advanced anti ship cruise missiles to Iran. Since the mid 1980s, China has been Iran's principal supplier of such systems, reportedly providing Tehran with 25-50 C-802s, more than 200 C-801s, and 100 HY-2 "Silkworms" together with the technology to make more indigenously. Although they failed to gain such a pledge, a State Department official said, "We have reason to hope the last shipments have taken place." Chinese officials in the past have linked conventional weapons sales to Iran with U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and Beijing's refusal to forswear such sales may allow Beijing to take credit for responsible behavior without giving up any of the diplomatic leverage provided by the potential sale of such weapons.
Opponents of the president's certification decision have drawn attention to China's refusal to end its peaceful nuclear trade with India and Pakistan and join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). A body similar to the Zangger Committee, the NSG requires "full scope" safeguards (monitoring of all of a nation's nuclear facilities), as a condition for supply, rather than the application of safeguards only at the particular facilities where nuclear items will be sent (as required by the Zangger Committee). Critics argue that even though U.S. laws do not require membership in the NSG as a condition for nuclear cooperation, the president should have insisted that China accept the more comprehensive NSG standard for nuclear trade to avoid tacit endorsement of a double standard among nuclear suppliers.
Congressional opponents of certification, which include three key committee chairmen—Senator Jesse Helms (R NC) of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Shelby (R AL) of the Intelligence Committee and Representative Benjamin Gilman (R NY) of the International Relations Committee—have also asserted that China's checkered proliferation record makes its commitments unreliable, and that any U.S. nuclear contracts resulting from certification should be deferred at least a year to see if Beijing is standing by its promises.
In letters to the president, congressional opponents of certification noted that as recently as May the United States sanctioned Chinese companies for transferring chemical weapons precursors to Iran, and in June a CIA report named Beijing as "the most significant supplier" of proliferation technologies and advanced weapons in the last half of 1996.
Congress has also been troubled by Beijing's sales of anti ship cruise missiles to Iran and reports that Tehran's longer range missile programs are receiving technical assistance from Chinese entities, possibly in violation of the MTCR.
Nevertheless, Clinton administration officials, recalling their victory in June in the debate over China's most favored nation trading status, remain confident that Congress will not reverse the president's decision. Under the 1985 congressional legislation approving the Sino U.S. nuclear accord, Congress has 30 days (while in session) to review the president's certification before any licenses for exports can be issued. To reverse the president's decision, both houses would have to pass a joint resolution changing certification requirements by at least a two thirds majority, ensuring a sufficient margin to protect against a presidential veto.