Washington Post, March 18, 1998

William C. Triplett II

Reagan's Example On China

The recent discovery of Chinese proliferation transgressions presents the Clinton administration with an opportunity to regain momentum and demonstrate some foreign policy leadership.

As revealed by The Post's Barton Gellman and John Pomfret on March 13, the American intelligence community has discovered secret negotiations" between the Chinese and Iranian governments designed to transfer hundreds of tons of chemicals that could be used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. Apparently, this particular transaction was aborted by the American discovery and subsequent diplomatic protest.

Because the negotiations were secret and at the government-to-government level. they raise immediate concerns about Chinese government intentions regarding nuclear transfers In this case, the discovery of the Beijing-Tehran conduit is more important than the discovery of the anhydrous hydrogen fluoride in the pipeline. Given our intelligence limitations regarding Chinese proliferation tion activities, we can only speculate what else may have passed down the conduit and what other deals are in the works. If, as many experts suspect, the Chinese have a full-scale "denial and deception" program in place, any transfer could take place without being discovered.

While the Clinton administration can claim victory for stopping this particular transfer, last week's revelations could not come at a worse moment. Unless a two-thirds vote of both houses can be mustered against it by today, the U.S.-China Nuclear Cooperation Agreement will go into effect. Considering recent events, President Jiang Zemin's no-nuclear- transfer pledge to President Clinton seems worthless.

But it's not too late: The administration can take down the agreement temporarily in order to allow for "consultations" with the Chinese.

This, in fact, is what the Reagan administration did in 1984 when. faced with exactly the same problem. In the spring of that year, President Reagan initialed the agreement in Beijing. Immediately after the proposal was brought before Congress, allegations of Chinese assistance to the Iranian nuclear weapons program surfaced in The Post. The Republicans held the Senate in 1984, and the administration knew that, with strong business community support, it could bull its way through.

Instead, President Reagan chose to take down the agreement, negotiate stronger nonproliferation commitments from the Chinese and resubmit it to the Senate a year later. This took policy integrity, some willingness to acknowledge criticism and, finally, courage.

Following President Reagan's path is the right thing to do. First, the president would be seen as standing up to Beijing, a move certain to draw praise on the Hill Last week the Senate adopted a bipartisan resolution demanding that the administration bring Beijing's human rights offenses to the attention of the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva. The resolution passed 95 to 5.

Second, taking down the agreement, even for a few months, would send a strong signal. to Beijing and other proliferators that the Clinton administration won' t cover up for them. It would demonstrate that there is a cost to be paid for supporting the weapons of mass destruction program of terrorist countries.

Third, it would have generalized foreign policy benefits for the prest dent and his team. To put it diplomatically, his team has had credibility problems in recent months. But if he takes down the agreement, it would signal that neither the president nor his team will square the policy circle just to curry favor with the business community. Not only will the administration be commended, correctly, for honesty it will make others around the world change their evaluation of just what they can get away with: in essence a warning to those who would consider the administration a doormat

Finally, the downside, the risk to the business community, is minimal. Nuclear power plants take years and, years to plan and build. This would be particularly true in earthquake-prone China. If the president were to withdraw the agreement and resubmit it after he returns from China in July (presumably with new assurance), at the end of the construction period no one would miss these few months of delay.

So the revelation of China's attempts to cheat on its non- proliferation commitments forces President Clinton to choose. He can go the route of honesty, integrity and leadership that President Reagan chose. Or he can try to ride it out and run the risk of further embarrassment the next time something is discovered inthe Beijing- Tehran weapons of mass destruction conduit.

The writer is the former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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