China Offers U.S. New Pledge of Nuclear Exports, Avoids Sanctions

By Medeiros, Evan S. | Arms Control Today, May/June 1996 | Go to article overview

China Offers U.S. New Pledge of Nuclear Exports, Avoids Sanctions


Medeiros, Evan S., Arms Control Today


THE CLINTON administration may have achieved an important non-proliferation breakthrough with China as a result of Beijing's May 11 promise not to "provide assistance" to foreign nuclear facilities not under international safeguards. This new assurance and Beijing's clarifications about its past nuclear sales to Pakistan led the State Department to decide not to impose economic sanctions for the sale last year of Chinese ring magnets to Pakistan. (See ACT, February 1996.)

The administration's decision came at a critical time in Sino-U.S. relations, which have been increasingly strained by disputes over intellectual property rightswhere the threat of U.S. sanctions has also been invoked-and the approaching debate over the renewal of China's most favored nation trading status. In addition, the United States is seeking Beijing's support for the early conclusion of a comprehensive test ban treaty in Geneva, where negotiators are facing a June 28 deadline if the treaty is to be ready for signature in September. (See p. 17.)

The nuclear dispute emerged in February when press reports of a leaked CIA report revealed that the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation (CNEIC), a state-owned nuclear equipment manufacturer, had shipped 5,000 custom-made ring magnets worth $70,000 to a Pakistani uranium enrichment facility not under international safeguards. The magnets are used in centrifuges that produce enriched uranium.

Following the disclosure, China claimed its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan was strictly for peaceful purposes while Islamabad denied the transfer ever occurred. The Clinton administration, facing increasing calls from some in Congress to impose economic sanctions against China under the 1994 Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act (NPPA), undertook a series of high-level meetings with Chinese officials to avert a new setback to already shaky Sino-U.S. relations.

Ambiguous Assurances

After three months of meetings in Washington, Beijing and The Hague, China promised in a May 11 official statement that it "will not to provide assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities." In a May 10 statement announcing the impending Chinese pledge, the State Department said China privately agreed to apply this policy to future ring magnet transfers. China has also publicly promised that both countries would continue their dialogue on harmonizing export control policies and systems, with the next meeting scheduled for July. However, the meaning of China's May 11 assurance remains unclear. In its statement, Beijing did not define the term "assistance" to include ring magnets or other equipment and material whose export is not specifically controlled by multilateral non-proliferation arrangements. Indeed, Beijing's new export pledge merely restates a commitment China made when it joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992.

During private negotiations with U.S. officials in March, China reportedly argued that the ring magnet sale would not be a violation of its NPT commitments because the magnets are not explicitly named on the so-called "Zangger List," an inventory of nuclear technologies which NPT members promise not to export unless placed under international safeguards.

In explaining the difference between China's May 11 statement and the U. …

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