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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 18, September 1997

China Returns Supercomputer,
Adopts New Rules in Advance of Summit

In mid-September, the US State Department announced that China was requesting permission to return a supercomputer, purchased from a US company, Sun Microsystems Inc. of California, after the Clinton Administration had voiced concerns about its possible diversion to military use. According to reports, the issue was discussed by Secretary of State Albright during a June meeting with China's Foreign Minister Qian Qichen. On 12 September, State Department spokesperson James Foley told reporters that although China "viewed this as a legal transaction, they understood and were sensitive to our concerns." Foley added:

"We are pleased with the rapid response and the cooperation of the Chinese government, which helped us to identify a mutually acceptable solution to this issue... We regard China's willingness to engage on this problem as a positive indicator for future actions with China on technology transfer issues..."

Foley stated that the computer was expected to be returned to the US supplier within a month.

On 10 September, China's State Council announced new controls on nuclear-related exports. The new controls had been agreed in principle by the Cabinet's Executive Committee on 1 August (see last issue). As quoted by the Xinhua news agency on 11 September, the new regulations are intended "to strengthen controls on nuclear exports and to safeguard the security of the nation and to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. ... The State will carry out strict management and control of nuclear exports and will strictly fulfil its international obligation not to spread nuclear weapons." The rules also state:

"The government prohibits providing help to nuclear facilities not subject to the supervision of international atomic energies and will not provide exports, personnel, technical exchange or cooperation to those facilities..."

It was not immediately apparent from the available quotes how this position differs, either in general or specifics, from the previous policy and stance.

On 15 September, Xinhua elaborated: "The State is in the process of implementing a licensing system for nuclear exports... All related items and relevant technology on the 'Nuclear Export Control List' must have appropriate licenses prior to exportation."

According to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Cui Tiankai, quoted by the news agency on 15 September:

"The application process for nuclear exports will be examined by departments in charge of [the] nuclear industry and departments in charge of nuclear export[s]... The Chinese government retains the right to terminate exports of approved nuclear materials if the recipient violates the regulations, or if there is any danger of nuclear proliferation..."

Many observers regarded this developments as elements of a concerted bid by China to persuade the US to agree to implement a dormant 1985 agreement between the two States on peaceful nuclear cooperation. There is speculation that activating the agreement will be high on the agenda when President Clinton meets President Jiang Zemin in Beijing later in the year, either in late October or early November, according to reports.

On 8 September, the President of the independent Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), Paul Leventhal, wrote to President Clinton, urging him not to implement the accord. Leventhal reasoned:

"Were you to allow China access to US commercial nuclear power reactors and fuel before China provides convincing evidence that it is now prepared to adhere to...global [non-proliferation] standards...a singular opportunity to bind China to the non-proliferation community of nations will be lost..."

Editor's note: on 11 September, two senior members of the US House of Representatives - Floyd Spence (Republican - South Carolina), Chair of the National Security Committee, and Committee Ranking Minority Member Ronald Dellums (Democrat - California) - released a report advocating a tightening in US rules for supercomputer exports. According to Spence:

"This report confirms my belief that the administration's supercomputer policy fails to properly account for America's national security interest... I hope this report will help us convince the administration to reconsider its policy before irreparable damage is done to our national security."

Reports: Clinton warned not to rush China nuclear trade, Reuters, 9 September; China insists nuclear exports peaceful, Reuters, 11 September; China issues new nuke export rules, Associated Press, 11 September; House to revise supercomputer rules, Associated Press, 11 September; Transcript - State Department briefing, September 12, United States Information Service, 12 September; China returns supercomputer, Associated Press, 12 September; US says China to return supercomputer, Reuters, 13 September; China implements nuclear export license system, Reuters, 15 September; US encouraged by China moves ahead of summit, Reuters, 15 September.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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