US China Policy: The Sweet and Sour Advanced Nuclear Program Gets Chinese Input, despite Dispute

Article excerpt

EVEN while confronting China over its intimidation of Taiwan and other conduct, the Clinton administration quietly approved Beijing's participation in developing the world's most advanced nuclear-power reactor in the United States.

Four federal departments, two independent agencies, and the National Security Council concurred in the Jan. 25 decision to grant visas to six Chinese nuclear engineers to work with Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Company on the reactor program.

The decision illustrates the built-in complexities and contradictions of the administration's policy of "strategic engagement" with China. On one hand, it wants to nurture smooth relations with the Communist giant to ensure US access to the world's largest market. On the other, Beijing persists in behavior that senior officials acknowledge is inimical to international stability and US security.

With the AP-600 reactor, which the US government is partially funding, economics won out.

Officials justify the visa decision as a step toward securing a job-producing slice for the US nuclear industry of a multibillion-dollar market for civilian nuclear technology in China. French, Canadian, and Russian firms are already ahead in grabbing pieces of the largest pie of its kind on earth. Says one official: "If you are not in, you're out, and it hurts your competitive position in the world."

But arms-control advocates decry the move. They say it perpetuates a misguided US policy that encourages dangerous and irresponsible Chinese conduct by elevating corporate interests above holding Beijing accountable for weapons proliferation, piracy of US copyrights and trade secrets, massive human rights violations, and threats to regional stability.

"You really can't be in the slave trade if you want to control it," says Henry Sokolski, a former Pentagon official who heads the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, a think tank. "You are treating China as though it is a regular member of the peaceful nuclear society of nations, and it is not."

Critics also question the decision in light of China's extensive efforts to illegally acquire US advanced technology. Though the AP-600 project does not involve military-related technologies, they say it will provide advanced know-how to China's fledgling nuclear-power industry. A Westinghouse official, however, insists the Chinese experts will be working on conventional parts of the reactor under "very sophisticated security procedures."

China has no civilian nuclear-cooperation agreement with the US and is on a list of 42 nations, including Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Pakistan, barred from such cooperation because they pose proliferation or national-security concerns. Waivers may be granted by the Energy Department with the assent of the State, Defense, and Commerce Departments, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Because of the serious concerns involved, the NSC joined those bodies in the deliberations on China's involvement in the AP-600 program. The approval of the six visas turned out to be unanimous, an administration source says. Normally, congressional notification would be required. But in this case, officials relied on a blanket waiver approved for the reactor program in 1985 and did not notify Congress, apparently to avoid opposition from members critical of the administration's China policy.

The decision contrasts sharply with the state of Sino-US relations at the time it was made.

Some US officials and members of Congress were already concerned over intelligence reports last summer that China in 1994 sold ballistic-missile components to Iran and Pakistan. Citing inconclusive evidence, the White House avoided imposing economic sanctions against China under a 1990 arms-control law.

But within days of the visa decision, US officials revealed new intelligence reports that China had sold nuclear-arms-related equipment to Pakistan and cruise missiles to Iran. …