China Cheats (What a Surprise!)

The New York Times
April 24, 1997, p. A35

Satellite photos now reveal that a state-owned Chinese company deliberately deceived Washington officials in 1994 when it claimed it was importing American machine tools for civilian purposes. Instead, it diverted them illegally to a missile factory.

This should come as no surprise. The Clinton Administration’s penchant for putting trade above national security has convinced China that even the greatest outrages will go unpunished.

The equipment came from Columbus, Ohio, where it had been used to produce the B-1 strategic bomber. The shipment included high-tech milling and measuring machines and a giant stretch press used for bending huge pieces of metal; all required export licenses from the Commerce Department. The state-run Chinese company, Catic, said the equipment was to go to a new machining center in Beijing to be used in making civilian aircraft. But the center didn’t even exist when the licenses were applied for. Nonetheless, the Commerce Department approved the shipment over the protest of Pentagon officials who were convinced the machines would be diverted to military producers.

Pentagon officials say the Chinese insisted on the machine tool sale at the same time the United States was trying to get the Chinese to buy aircraft from McDonnell Douglas, a deal that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown went to China to complete and that President Clinton announced with great fanfare two months after the licenses for the machine tools were granted.

The stretch press went straight to a missile factory 800 miles from Beijing, where a special building was created to house it. The satellite photos show that the factory was under construction even as the Chinese were promising Administration officials they would use the press at the Beijing machining center. Catic also implied at the time that the plant in Beijing was almost ready, which was also not true.

Commerce Department investigators, indignant at those and other deceptions, urged in late 1995 that Catic be punished with trade sanctions. But that course was rejected at the department’s higher levels, where officials have clung to the myth that engaging China is the way to get it to change its ways.

Where has our engagement policy actually gotten us? Since 1994, China has refused even to talk to us seriously about its exports of weapons of mass destruction. Despite its promises in 1992 and 1994 to stop selling missile technology, American satellites and intelligence agents have observed regular travel by Chinese missile technicians to Pakistan and have documented steady transfers of missile-related equipment. A Pakistani factory for the production of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads is expected to be ready for operation within the year. It was built with Chinese help.

In addition, China has been outfitting Iran with poison gas ingredients and equipment for at least five years, something the United States has done little to stop.

Our policy toward China is essentially the same one that we followed toward Iraq before the Persian Gulf war. By selling Saddam Hussein what he wanted, the State Department said, we would persuade him to stop being a rogue. Haven’t we learned our lesson?

If we really want to engage the Chinese, we have to show that we are willing to punish them when they break the rules. We should indict Catic for its illegal diversions and banish from American trade the Chinese companies that are spreading poison gas and missile technology to Iran and Pakistan. Until we show we are serious, outrages like the Catic deal will continue.