Is Nuclear Cooperation with China in the National Interest?
Senior Policy Analyst, Nuclear Control Institute
Congressional Research Service Briefing
October 24, 1997
Nuclear cooperation with China is not now in the national interest. It could be in the future, if it is done right. Doing it right means:
- Getting solid commitments from China on its nuclear-export policies in general and with regard to Iran and Pakistan in particular.
- Requiring a "waiting period" to ensure that China is adhering to its new commitments.
- Establishing a mechanism to maintain continuing scrutiny -- by Congress as well as the Executive Branch -- as cooperation proceeds.
The 1985 Agreement and Legislation
In 1985 the Reagan administration, negotiated, signed and submitted to Congress an agreement for nuclear cooperation with China. Even though the political line-up was considerably different from today's -- a Republican was in the White House and the Democrats controlled the House -- much of the debate was strikingly similar.
Boosters of the agreement argued that the administration had gotten sufficient guarantees from China, and that any further constraints would scuttle the whole deal. They advocated going full speed ahead with the agreement and opposed any additional constraints. Ambassador Richard T. Kennedy, the Reagan administration's chief negotiator on the China agreement testified:
Our contacts with the Chinese, Mr. Chairman, have demonstrated clearly that they appreciate the importance we attach to non-proliferation. We are satisfied that the policies they have adopted are consistent with our own basic views. Formalizing our ties in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy through an agreement for cooperation will provide a means to advance our shared objectives.
Skeptics of the agreement -- basing their argument on China's track record, which included supplying Pakistan's nuclear weapons program with both a bomb design and bomb material - - argued for a more cautious approach. They also argued that, on its face, the agreement did not meet the requirements spelled out in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (NNPA).
In December 1985, Congress passed a resolution approving the agreement but adding certain conditions. These conditions brought the agreement closer to -- but not up to -- the standards of the NNPA by requiring three Presidential certifications. Perhaps the most significant one - - the one that apparently has prevented three Presidents, over 12 years from activating the agreement -- is the Presidential certification that China is no longer assisting another country's nuclear-weapons program.
Two key points about the 1985 events:
- The skeptics were right. After 1985 China continued to assist nuclear weapons programs in other countries. In fact, at the time the agreement was signed, China was covertly cooperating with Algeria to provide an unsafeguarded plutonium production reactor -- cooperation that continued until the project was completed several years later.
- The new non-proliferation commitments that China has made in recent months can be directly attributed to the congressionally-imposed conditions. It is hard to imagine that China would be making these commitments, or that the administration would be pressing for them, if the 1985 and 1990 laws were not in place.
Past Transgressions and Current Concerns
Since signing the agreement in 1985 -- and even after joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- China has continued to supply illicit nuclear-weapons programs. In addition to supplying Algeria's plutonium-production reactor, China has provided
- Iraq with lithium hydride, an important material for making nuclear bombs (in 1990, in violation of the international embargo on Iraq);
- Iran with a research reactor and a calutron, a technology that can be used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade; and
- Pakistan with tritium (a material with applications to both basic and advanced nuclear weapons) and specialized ring magnets used in Pakistan's uranium-enrichment program.
After this last transfer was disclosed, China pledged, in May 1996, to send its nuclear goods only to safeguarded facilities -- that is, it pledged not to provide nuclear assistance to the facilities in Pakistan (and India) that were not open to international inspectors. But it is not altogether clear that China is abiding by even that most recent commitment. Earlier this year, the CIA reported:
During the last half of 1996, China was the most significant supplier of WMD [weapons of mass destruction]-related goods and technology to foreign countries. The Chinese provided a tremendous variety of assistance to both Iran's and Pakistan's ballistic missile programs. China also was the primary source of nuclear-related equipment and technology to Pakistan, and a key supplier to Iran during this period.... [emphasis supplied]
What's Needed from China
Before the United States starts sending nuclear reactors and fuel to China, Congress should insist that a number of key issues be resolved.
Nuclear Suppliers Group: China is the only major nuclear supplier that is not a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). China should join the NSG, or at least adopt its standards -- most notably, its requirement of full-scope safeguards as a condition of supply and its control regime on dual-use items.
Exports to Iran: China should terminate all nuclear assistance to Iran (and make a public, written statement to that effect).
Exports to Pakistan: China should terminate all direct or indirect assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities. We are particularly concerned that China will provide Pakistan with the heavy water it needs for its unsafeguarded Khushab plutonium production reactor, either indirectly (if Pakistan diverts heavy water from the safeguarded Kanupp reactor) or directly.
Export-Control System: China has approved a new export-control law, but that law should be fully implemented and tested.
Internal controls: Under the 1985 law, one of the certifications the President has to make is that arrangements are in place in China that are "designed to be effective" in ensuring that U.S. nuclear assistance will be utilized only for peaceful purposes. But China has a record of diverting non-nuclear U.S. exports -- specifically, machine tools and a supercomputer -- to military applications. China should accept "safeguards" on goods it imports from the United States -- as every other U.S. nuclear trading partner does.
Reprocessing: Another certification the President must make is that the United States is not obliged to approve Chinese requests to reprocess (separate plutonium from) spent nuclear fuel. We think the administration should seek to persuade China to refrain from reprocessing altogether. While not required by the agreement, such a commitment by China would remove a major source of potential friction over the agreement and would avoid the destabilizing effects of another large-scale plutonium program in Asia.
Because China has consistently violated international norms and its own commitments, Congress should ensure that the United States proceeds cautiously in opening up nuclear trade with China. Congress should pass legislation that mandates:
- a waiting period of at least one year from the Presidential certification, to ensure that China is adhering to its commitments and
- recertification by the President each time a U.S. company applies for an export license. Like the original certification, each recertification would have to lie before Congress for 30 days.
In deciding whether to engage in nuclear trade with China, Congress and the Executive Branch should also take into account Chinese exports that assist other countries in developing missiles, or chemical or biological weapons.
Launching nuclear trade with China carries real risks -- that U.S. nuclear exports will be diverted to China's military program, as other U.S. exports have been, or that U.S. nuclear exports to China end up assisting the nuclear weapons programs of countries such as Iran and Pakistan. But there need not be such a direct transfer to violate U.S. law and undermine U.S. interests.
Under the Atomic Energy Act (Section 129), the United States cannot engage in nuclear cooperation with a country that is assisting the nuclear-weapons programs of other countries. Also, in the context of broader relations with China, any cutting of corners or abandoning of requirements of U.S. law to reach an accommodation with China on nuclear trade is likely to undercut the U.S. position in other negotiations with China.
If recent press reports are accurate, the upcoming summit will feature some new non- proliferation commitments from China. Those commitments might prove to be a turning point in China's record of proliferation. Then again, they may turn out to be no more substantial and enduring than any of the other non-proliferation commitments that China has made and broken. Right now, nobody knows for sure -- and we won't know for quite a while. Until we do, the United States should not be sending nuclear reactors and fuel to China.
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