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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 19, October 1997

Build-Up to US-China Summit

In the run-up to the summit meeting between Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton, scheduled to begin in Washington on 28 October, speculation was rife that a 1985 US-China peaceful nuclear cooperation (PNC) agreement, dormant since its inception, was likely to be activated by the two leaders. Such a move has hitherto been resisted by the US due to concern about alleged Chinese exports of missiles and nuclear-related technology to States suspected of wishing to develop weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD). In particular, China's alleged supply of technology and equipment to Iran and Pakistan has caused great unease.

By mid-October, both sides were clearly still at work to finalise measures and commitments that would pave the way for the US to enter the lucrative civil nuclear market in China. According to State Department spokesperson James Rubin on 14 October, the US was near to receiving "clear and unequivocal assurances" on future Chinese policy, but "we are not there yet." Rubin elaborated:

"We would like to be able to get to a point where China has made a sufficient number of commitments, and we have reason to believe that those commitments can be implemented, so that we can state that clear and unequivocal assurances have been provided."

On the specific issue of Iran, Rubin stated: "we believe a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten US security interests, as well as regional and international security issues. For that reason, we have continuously opposed nuclear cooperation by all countries with Iran." Rubin further made clear that the issue was not necessarily whether China was in breach of the letter of any of its international undertakings:

"In other words, we want to close down any possibility, however permitted under international guidelines, that Iran will gain knowledge in its pursuit of nuclear weapons."

US industry has been expressing guarded optimism that the two sides will come to a full agreement. On 9 October, Ian Butterfield, the director of international and government affairs for Westinghouse Electric Corporation, told Reuters: "I expect the President will be sending the certifications [that China is fully trustworthy] to the Hill... they've made an awful lot of progress and it is unlikely that the two sides, having come so far, would abandon what they had achieved." Another Westinghouse director, Howard Bruschi, told the news agency (9 October) that China had so far ordered 8 new reactors, from Canada, France, Russia and from within China. "The issue," he said, "is will the United States participate or not. ... They will move with or without us."

The State Department has been at pains to stress that the decision is not already in the bag. According to Rubin, speaking on 18 September:

"It's not going to be an easy decision to make... you have to take into account all of the relevant factors and come to a judgement as to whether the assurances are clear, are they unequivocal, whether the effect of all this is that they really aren't going to be assisting non-nuclear-weapon States..."

In May 1996, China gave the US an assurance that it would not provide assistance to any State with non-safeguarded facilities. In the run-up to the summit, US officials were stressing that that undertaking appeared to have been honoured. According to White House spokesperson Mike McCurry (18 September): "We have no information to suggest that they have not abided by that declaration." In September this year, China announced a new set of export controls for nuclear-related items (see last issue).

On 3 October, the Associated Press reported that in August 62 members of Congress, led by Representative Edward Markey (Democrat - Massachusetts), had written to President Clinton urging him not to activate the PNC agreement. The letter stated that "no President has thus far been able to certify" that China was trustworthy on the proliferation issue, and added that "we do not believe that it is possible to certify that it is the case today." The letter went on:

"We do not believe that there exists substantial evidence that China has adopted export controls that are effective at halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction..."

US Commerce Secretary William Daley visited China from 3-10 October. He was understandably enthusiastic about the prospect of activating the PNC accord, stating on 3 October:

"Our companies are at the cutting edge of technology in nuclear energy... We fully understand the need to check the proliferation of material, but at the same time, we would like to be in a position of advocating on behalf of US businesses."

Earlier, on 26 September, the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations had suggested, in a report dissented from by some of its members, that sanctions should be imposed on China for its alleged sale in 1996 of cruise missiles to the Iranian Navy. According to the Committee's Chair, Benjamin Gilman (Republican - New York): "The acquisition of at least 60 C-802 missiles from China is clearly...a threat to stability in the Persian Gulf." A dissenting Committee member, Doug Bereuter (Republican - Nebraska), countered that "elements of this package" - referring to the proposed sanctions - "are very much contrary to our national interest." It was, he added, "quite inappropriate for us to move at this particular time."

Editor's note: the activation of the PNC agreement was duly announced on 29 October - see next issue.

Reports: US hopes for China nuke agreement, Associated Press, 18 September; US weighs China's nuclear role, Associated Press, 18 September; US sees possible OK to China nuclear deals, Reuters, 18 September; Panel - punish China for arms sales, Associated Press, 26 September; White House to slam China on nukes, Associated Press, 3 October; US may sell China nuke technology, Associated Press, 3 October; China-Iran weapons sales targeted, Associated Press, 7 October; Industry sees US-China nuclear deal proceeding, Reuters, 9 October; US wants pledge of no nukes to Iran, Associated Press, 14 October.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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