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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 33, December 1998 - January 1999

Pentagon, House Concludes US Satellite Policy Assisted China

On 30 December, a Special Committee of the House of Representatives, composed of five Republican and four Democrat members and established in June 1998 to investigate reports that the US policy of exporting satellites to China to be launched on Chinese rockets had benefited China's missile programme, unanimously concluded that American national security had been harmed. The Committee's report - and 38 recommendations - was not made public due to the amount of classified material it contained. However, Committee Chair Christopher Cox (Republican - California) told reporters: "Based on unclassified information, we have found that national security harm did occur..."

Cox made clear that the Committee had investigated not just specific recent incidents - in particular two failed rocket launches of Chinese rockets carrying US-made (Hughes Electronics Corporation & Loral Space and Communications) satellites in 1995 and 1996 (see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 24, Disarmament Diplomacy No. 25, & Disarmament Diplomacy No. 27,) - but the results of general satellite export policy over the past 20 years: "United States transfer of technology to the People's Republic of China [PRC] has been the target of serious PRC effort over the last two decades... Rather quickly, our investigation led to even more serious problems of PRC technology-acquisition efforts targeted at the United States. The seriousness of the findings and their enormous implications for our national security led us to an unanimous report." The Committee's senior Democrat, Norman Dicks (Washington) commended the report to the White House: "[T]his is a bipartisan effort that has yielded a consensus product. That isn't easy to do in the climate that we were operating in."

China reacted angrily to the Committee's suggestion that it had benefited from being able to launch US satellites. Referring to the possible enhancement of China's missile programme as a result of data and information obtained in the wake of the failed launches, a senior diplomat at China's Washington Embassy, He Yafei, stated on 7 January: "If there should be such conclusions in the report, they are very much absurd, irresponsible and totally unwarranted... China has the resources and the capability to analyze the failures by itself. We have no intention, nor do we need, to get US technology through the launching of satellites... [There has been a] blurring of the distinction between necessary and innocuous coordination and exchange of data and illegal divulgence of sensitive technology." In Beijing, also on 7 January, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhu Bangzao stated angrily: "Obsessed with a Cold War mentality, a few US Congressmen run counter to the historical trend and fabricate rumours out of thin air in an attempt to obstruct the improvement and development of China-US relations."

Earlier, on 10 December, the Pentagon confirmed media reports that it had conducted, at the request of the Special House Committee, its own classified investigation into the failed launches and concluded that Hughes Space and Communications had unwittingly provided valuable information to China. According to Defense Department spokesperson Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon study had found "that some information provided by Hughes could have allowed the Chinese to increase the reliability of their rapid launches," although this information "was not likely to have altered the strategic balance between the US and China." Bacon added that procedures designed to prevent such an eventuality had not worked: "There are a series of safeguards that are supposed to occur to prevent the inappropriate transfer of technology... [T]hese safeguards were not followed."

Reports: Pentagon - Hughes helped China, Associated Press, 10 December; China - rocket report shows US 'Cold War mentality,' Reuters, 10 December; Pentagon confirms Hughes aided China's missile program, Kyodo, 10 December; House Panel criticizes China deals, Associated Press, 30 December; China denies it got US missile technology, Reuters, 7 January; China accuses US Congress, Associated Press, 7 January.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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