The Pitfalls of Nuclear Trade with China

The Boston Sunday Globe
February 22, 1998

China’s export record and its refusals speak of the need for US safeguards.

Congress is now debating whether to approve President Clinton’s recent agreement allowing nuclear trade with China. Will the deal encourage China to continue exporting weapons of mass destruction, as its opponents fear, or will it create American jobs and preserve U.S. security, as its backers claim?

Both sides agree that China’s nuclear export record is bad. Since 1980, China has supplied billions of dollars in nuclear, chemical and missile technology to South Asia, South Africa, South America and the Middle East. The shipments have flowed side-by-side with China’s promises to stop them.

In 1992, after the United States caught China giving missile assistance to Pakistan, China promised to stop such sales. The State Department then dropped trade sanctions against the offending Chinese companies. But it had to impose them again in 1993 because China was caught helping Pakistan again. The State Department lifted the sanctions once more in 1994, when China made a second promise to stop, but the missile shipments soon resumed, and they have continued.

China is also helping Pakistan to build its own missile plant, which will produce rockets powerful enough to hit Indian cities with nuclear warheads. State acknowledges the shipments are going on, but has chosen not to apply sanctions because it is following a policy of “engagement.”

China has also given Pakistan a tested nuclear bomb design. As recently as 1996, China supplied magnets specially designed to boost Pakistan’s production of atomic bomb fuel. If China’s aid were subtracted from Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs, the programs would not exist.

The Clinton administration acknowledges all this, but argues that it has “seen a marked positive shift” in China’s nuclear export behavior. The administration points out that since May 1996, when U.S. diplomats confronted China over the magnet sale, China has stopped supplying nuclear components to plants not subject to international inspection.

Moreover, the administration says, China has promised to phase out its nuclear cooperation with Iran. Beijing planned to sell Tehran a plant to enrich uranium to nuclear weapons grade. The plant had no civilian use, and was an evident step toward the bomb.

China now says it will drop this deal, but it is fair to ask why China would agree to such an outrageous sale in the first place. Were the Chinese just pulling Uncle Sam’s beard, to see how many concessions he would deliver? And if America rewards China for not selling such a plant, how is that different from giving in to blackmail?

To open nuclear trade, President Clinton must certify that China is no longer helping other countries to make nuclear weapons. By ending its secret nuclear sales to Pakistan, and by phasing out its help to Iran, China has shown that it meets this litmus test, the administration says. Thus, it makes sense to reward China’s progress, especially if it means creating American jobs. The State Department calls the pact a “win-win situation.”

But what China hasn’t promised is even more important. Beijing has refused to cut off aid to Pakistan’s nuclear program: China promises only to refrain from shipping things to secret plants. Training Pakistan’s nuclear experts, and selling components that can be diverted from an inspected plant to a secret one, will continue. China has also refused to curb its missile exports to Pakistan and Iran, and refused to stop helping Iran to make poison gas. If China were truly mending its ways, critics say, it would stop these exports too.

The jobs issue was clearly paramount in the administration’s calculations. Increased trade has been Clinton’s main goal in foreign policy. So what’s in the deal for the American worker?

Westinghouse, which led the campaign to open trade, argues that China will buy up to sixty billion dollars worth of reactors over the next fifteen years. Each twin-reactor order would create 5,000 jobs, including 1,600 in Pennsylvania, according to Westinghouse estimates.

But that seems unlikely. China has said that most of the jobs will be Chinese. In September, a high Chinese official explained how China plans to buy its reactors. There will be three criteria: China must be offered the latest reactor design, the sale must be on credit, and the seller must teach China how to build the reactor on its own.

The last point is vital. In February, Zhao Chengkun, dean of China’s Nuclear Power Institute, laid out China’s plans for dealing with Westinghouse. China plans to start with the latest Westinghouse design, the advanced AP600 reactor, for which U.S. taxpayers shouldered half the development cost. Then, China and Westinghouse will jointly develop a Chinese version, the “China AP600.” According to Zhao, this will “facilitate independent design and domestic manufacturing.”

The “construction…should be done mainly by the Chinese,” Zhao said, under China’s policy of “international cooperation, with China taking the lead.” He estimated that China would “produce at least 70 percent of the equipment.” During construction, “a few Westinghouse experts may come to China to provide technical assistance on new technologies,” he said, but “the next century of reactors in China shall be designed and built in China and be economically competitive.”

No one should be surprised by this strategy. It is the same path that Japan and France chose decades ago. When those two countries were faced with building a string of new reactors, each bought an American plant to get the latest design. Then each country built the rest of its reactors on its own. If China doesn’t do the same, it will spend billions of dollars it can ill afford to squander.

France, in fact, is offering China the Westinghouse design that France originally imported from the United States. Framatome, the French reactor builder, uses Westinghouse technology under a U.S. license. If Congress approves the trade pact, Westinghouse will be competing in China against its own technology. This makes sound hollow the recent pronouncement of Michael Jordan, the Westinghouse chief executive officer, who told the press in October that “Westinghouse is perfectly delighted to have the opportunity to compete at long last with our foreign rivals in China’s $60 billion market for nuclear power.”

Jordan also forgot to mention that Westinghouse is leaving the business. After leading the charge to get the China agreement through the White House, the 111-year-old company became the CBS Corporation. In November, its management sold its power generation business to Siemens AG of Germany for $1.53 billion, and what’s left of its nuclear business will probably be disposed of this year to another foreign buyer.

Opening trade with China could make Jordan’s nuclear unit worth more on the auction block, which helps to explain his lobbying effort. Any American jobs produced by the pact probably will be few and short-lived.

The final question is whether China can or will control its exports. China promulgated its first regulation on nuclear trade only last fall, in a move that produced mostly skepticism. A leading defense authority in India observed that the new rule will be administered by the same Chinese government institutions that handled the nuclear sales to Pakistan. Thus, he concluded, “There is no guarantee that nuclear exports will not take place in the future.”

And there is the question of “dual-use” equipment. These are the high-accuracy machine tools and other sensitive items needed to make nuclear weapons, but which also have civilian applications. All the nuclear supplier states except China regulate their sale. Until China can control these items, it cannot truthfully assure the United States that it is not helping other countries build nuclear weapons. China is not expected to control dual-use items until mid-1998, at the earliest.

Congress would be prudent to require three things before allowing the nuclear pact to take effect. First, the President should certify that China can control its exports of dual-use technology. Until China can do so, there can be no confidence that Chinese equipment is not helping other countries build the bomb.

Second, the President should certify that China is no longer selling the means to make missiles and poison gas. China should not be able to receive American nuclear technology with one hand and spread missile and poison gas technology with the other.

Third, China should stop giving nuclear aid to Pakistan and other countries that do not open all their nuclear plants to inspection. If China wants the benefits of nuclear trade, it should accept the burdens of being a responsible nuclear supplier.

If Congress imposes these conditions, nuclear trade with China could make the world safer. Without them, weapons of mass destruction will continue to spread.