U.S. Considers Sanctions on China for Weapons, Technology Transfers

By Medeiros, Evan S. | Arms Control Today, February 1996 | Go to article overview

U.S. Considers Sanctions on China for Weapons, Technology Transfers


Medeiros, Evan S., Arms Control Today


IN AN important challenge to the Clinton administration's non-proliferation policies, Washington must soon decide how to respond to recently reported transfers by China of nuclear-related technology and advanced conventional weapons that may violate U.S. non-proliferation laws. If the nuclear transfer is confirmed, China may also be in violation of its commitments as a nuclear-weapon state under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Amid growing calls in Congress for the imposition of tough economic sanctions, the administration is seeking to protect extensive U.S. business interests in China and avoid further straining already tenuous Sino-U.S. relations, which could have serious implications for international non-proliferation efforts. China's Foreign Ministry has bluntly warned Washington that the imposition of "unjustified sanctions" would harm bilateral ties that are "now showing a momentum of gradual improvement."

Press reports suggest President Clinton may impose the most severe sanctions mandated under U.S. law, immediately waive them on national interest grounds and then impose more targeted penalties on specific high-tech U.S. exports that China cannot buy elsewhere.

Nuclear Technology to Pakistan

The focus of the current controversy is the disclosure by U.S. intelligence officials in early February that China sold 5,000 ring magnets last year to the A. Q. Kahn Research Laboratory in Kahuta, Pakistan. The magnets are used in centrifuges that produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) suitable for nuclear weapons. Pakistan has denied the sale and said the reports were "entirely speculative," while China has maintained that it has only "normal international cooperation on the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy with Pakistan."

According to a report in Nucleonics Week, the magnets may serve as a reserve supply as Pakistan modernizes and expands its aging centrifuge program. According to the report, the magnets, made from a high-quality samarium cobalt alloy cannot be used in Pakistan's first-generation centrifuges. Islamabad is reportedly trying to upgrade its centrifuge program at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 machines per year.

Although Pakistan claims it stopped producing HEU in July 1991, the purchase of the Chinese magnets raises questions about whether Pakistan intends to resume, and possibly increase, its HEU output.

China Faces New Sanctions

The magnet transfer, could contravene the 1994 Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act (NPPA), and could force the administration to impose sanctions on China. The penalties vary depending on the legal determination the administration makes regarding the seriousness of the transfer. There is no deadline for making this decision and the sanctions can be waived.

For example, if the administration finds that Beijing "willfully aided or abetted any non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire any nuclear explosive device or to acquire unsafeguarded special nuclear material," then the president would be forced to cancel $10 billion in Export-Import Bank loan guarantees currently pending for U.S. companies doing business in China, the most serious financial penalty. The president can waive this sanction if he determines that it would serve the "national interest." (Congress must be in continuous session for 25 days before the president may submit a waiver.)

While other, less severe sanctions could be imposed on China under the NPPA, such as the cutoff of military aid and military co-production agreements, their impact would be negligible because similar sanctions, imposed on Beijing in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square massacre, are still in effect.

The administration could also impose sanctions on Pakistan, but Islamabad is already subject to a cutoff of all U.S. military sales or assistance under the 1985 Pressler amendment. …

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U.S. Considers Sanctions on China for Weapons, Technology Transfers
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