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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 20, November 1997

Congress Reacts Angrily to US Nuclear Agreement With China

On 29 October, President Clinton announced that he would permit US civil nuclear sales to China. The announcement, which activates a 1985 Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation (PNC) agreement between the two States, was made after a summit meeting in Washington with China's President Jiang Zemin - see Documents and Sources for details and official reaction.

The move angered many on both left and right. On 27 October, two leading Republican Senators - Jesse Helms (North Carolina), Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Richard C. Shelby (Alabama), Chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, had written to the President, beseeching him to pull back:

"...given China's long record of proliferation of the most dangerous weapons technologies - frequently in violation of earlier commitments and international legal norms and obligations - combined with a history of denial, deception, evasion and lying about these activities, we believe that it is too soon to conclude that China has changed its policies sufficiently to merit access to US nuclear technology."

On 5 November, the House of Representatives voted by 394 votes to 29 to extend from 30 days to 120 days the time available to it to review President Clinton's certification that the 1985 agreement can now be activated. According to the Republican Chair of the International Relations Committee, Ben Gilman (New York), the vote demonstrated that the House was "deeply concerned that the Administration has failed to obtain the kind of iron-clad and enforceable commitments" that were necessary.

The House then turned to consideration of nine measures designed to punish China for both its non-proliferation and human rights records. On 7 November, it voted for the following measures:

  • by 414 votes to 8, it called on the Administration to urgently enforce the Iran-Iraq Nonproliferation Act mandating action - specifically, sanctions - against countries providing military assistance to either State. It named China and Russia as culprits.
  • by 408 votes to 10, it sought to deny the Chinese military normal commercial trade status.
  • by 385 votes to 36, it called on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to submit annual reports on Chinese "espionage" in the US, including military espionage.
  • by 301 votes to 116, it called on the Secretary of Defense to investigate and report on steps to provide Taiwan with defence against theatre-range ballistic missiles.

China was predictably incensed by the measures. According to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Shen Guofang (11 November):

"We have taken notice that in recent days the US House of Representatives...has passed a series of proposals with anti-Chinese content... This is gross interference in China's internal affairs. We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to this." Equally predictably, the President's 29 October decision was heralded by the US nuclear power industry. According to reports, China plans to build 40 nuclear reactors by 2010, at an estimated total cost of $50-$60 billion. The biggest potential US beneficiaries are thought to be Westinghouse Electric Corporation, General Electric and ABB Combustion Engineering. On 31 October, Keith Paulson, President of Westinghouse's Nuclear Sales Unit stated: "This opportunity will create thousands of high-quality US jobs that otherwise would have been lost."

Reports: 'Text- 10/27 Helms/Shelby letter on US-China nuclear agreement,' United States Information Service, 28 October; Clinton approves nuclear sales to China, Reuters, 29 October; US satisfied with China's nuclear controls, US official says, United States Information Service, 31 October; US firms to bid on China nuclear plants, Reuters, 31 October; House votes to extend review of China nuclear deal, Reuters, 5 November; House approves legislation to punish China, Reuters, 7 November; Congress backs China intelligence reports, Reuters, 7 November; House votes to ban Chinese leaders, Associated Press, 7 November; US, China discuss security in Beijing, Reuters, 11 November.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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