China's Nuclear Factor Clinton Must Balance Proliferation Issues with Those of Trade

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IN deciding in late May to condition China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status solely on Beijing's human rights policies, President Clinton postponed a decision on an equally important issue: how to obtain China's compliance with nonproliferation rules.

He had little choice, however, because in late May and early June, he faced an excruciating nonproliferation dilemma with Beijing.

United States intelligence analysts had recently determined that China had transferred short-range M-11 missiles to Pakistan. The transfer violated pledges given to Secretary of State James Baker III in November 1991 that China would abide by the multinational Missile Technology Control Regime. Worse still, CIA Director James Woolsey testified in February that China apparently was continuing to assist Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, a serious violation of China's obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it joined in March 1992.

China's pending sale of a nuclear power plant to Iran was another US concern. Though the sale was legal under the treaty, Washington had sought to freeze all nuclear transfers to Iran because of concerns that it was mounting a clandestine nuclear-weapons program.

These steps by Beijing demanded a tough US response. Unfortunately, Washington also desperately needed China's help on an equally pressing nonproliferation matter: On June 12, North Korea's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, announced three months earlier, would take effect.

As North Korea's only remaining military ally and economic patron, China was uniquely positioned to persuade Pyongyang to stay in the treaty. To solicit China's help, however, Mr. Clinton needed to stay on friendly terms with Beijing. This would be impossible if he threatened to withdraw its MFN status or applied other sanctions to obtain a change in China's export policies.

Thus when Clinton announced that he would tie China's MFN status solely to human rights and would address China's nuclear and missile behavior by means of other, more narrowly focused initiatives, he was not merely refining US MFN policy - he was deliberately postponing action on China's dangerous exports because of an unresolvable conflict with another US nonproliferation goal that could be advanced only with Chinese assistance.

Clinton's predicament reveals only part of the growing importance of China in global nonproliferation affairs, and only part of the policy troubles that lie ahead for Washington.

China's decisions about its nuclear arsenal and participation in nuclear-arms-control efforts are having increasing global repercussions. Along with the US, Russia, Britain, and France, China is one of the world's five declared nuclear-weapon states. It is grouped with Britain and France as a "middle nuclear power," possessing hundreds of nuclear weapons, in contrast to the 20,000 to 30,000 held by each of the two superpowers.

China's nuclear armory is in some ways less advanced than those of Britain or France. …