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
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. …