Making A Difference

With A Wink And A Nod

Washington drags its feet on penalising China and Pakistan over the sale of nuclear technology

With A Wink And A Nod
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The question is, will the Clinton Administration wield the big stick against China because it secretly exported nuclear weapons-making equipment to Pakistan, or will it chicken out? At a meeting on February 13 with top national security, economic and trade advisers, the White House failed to reach a decision on how to punish China without rupturing US-China ties. Although Beijing's action opens it to economic sanctions, they can be waived at the discretion of President Bill Clinton. This would also let Pakistan off the hook.

With billions of dollars at stake, the White House is seriously considering granting a waiver. The law allows such waivers if the president determines it to be in the greater national interest. What is expected to happen is a simultaneous announcement of sanctions and a waiver of those sanctions. Which means the US Administration hopes to make a point with Beijing and, at the same time, safeguard US business interests—while Islamabad goes scot free.

This might explain the unusually harsh speech of Defence Secretary William Perry at the National Defence College on February 13 where he criticised China's nuclear technology exports and human rights abuses, warning that the US policy of engagement did not mean appeasement.

Proliferation experts in Washington are appalled. Observes Leonard Spector of the Carnegie Endowment: "No one in the world would imagine that assistance to thatPakistani plant is innocent." And Gary Mil-hollin, who runs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, says: "What the Chinese have done is violate the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty soon after joining it and we are about to find out if the Clinton Administration cares more about the treaty than it does about export dollars."

The Washington Times broke the story on February 5. The Central Intelligence Age-ncy had found evidence that China sold sensitive technology for enriching uranium to Pakistan in the form of 5,000 ring magnets supplied to the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratory in Kahuta for installation in high-speed centrifuges.

China and Pakistan sent conflicting signals about the reported sale: while Beijing said it was for "peaceful" use, Islamabad denied it ever took place.

Under legislation passed by Congress in 1994, the sale could lead to a halt of loan guarantees by the US Exim Bank to China. If sanctions are imposed, it would force a cut-off of $10 billion in Exim Bank loan guarantees to American companies like Boeing, AT&T, Caterpillar, and Westinghouse Electric Corporation. These companies are furiously lobbying the Administration to build support for a waiver.

According to a lobbyist, even a waiver could cause problems because it would need Congress to have been in continuous session for 25 days. Given regular recesses in Congress, the penalties could be in place for several months and endanger many promising deals, besides infuriating the Chinese.

Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who opposes sanctions, says it is critical to continue business with China if the US hopes to retain influence in Beijing: "Being commercially engaged with China gives us the opportunity to have some influence, some impact on the direction that China takes." Brown did not comment on Pakistan.

This comes at a troubling time for US-China ties. Beijing is not living up to a trade agreement on intellectual property. In addition to piracy, there are issues of security, weapons proliferation, human rights and Taiwan—the US is anxious about China's belligerence towards Taipei. In an election year, Clinton's China policy will come under close scrutiny and any perception of weakness is going to be exploited. Presidential candidate Bob Dole could present avote-winning contrast to Clinton by working to defeat the extension of Most Favoured Nation trade privileges to China.

On sanctions, a state department official says: "We will do whatever is required under US law, but we have to have a very high degree of confidence in our evidence.... As of now, we have not determined that China has done anything that would trigger sanctions under US legislation."

White House spokesman Michael McCurry echoed the state department. "When we have satisfactory information to make the kind of determination that would then trigger sanctions, we do so and act according to the requirements of our law."

Defending the plan to waive sanctions, an Administration source says: "A waiver is not a wink and a nod. It's a way to allow US business to continue and still leave thefinding or determination there."

Although the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, Lynn Davis, is said to be in favour of imposing sanctions and waiving them, the Pentagon reportedly favours sanctions without a waiver.

Pakistan's role in all this has been kept deliberately muted because of the larger issue of China. The state department would be acutely embarrassed if it was discovered that Islamabad was surreptitiously buying nuclear weapons technology from China while lobbying to get the Brown Amendment passed last year. The hard-fought Brown Amendment, sponsored by Senator Hank Brown, authorises US military sales worth $368 million to Pakistan.

Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Robin Raphel, who pushed to get the Brown Amendment passed, declined to comment. A South Asia Bureau spokesperson says: "The (sanctions) issue will be taken up by Lynn Davis' office, not ours." He refused to speculate on whether US arms supplies to Pakistan would be suspended if the reports were found true. However, an Administration insider agreed the pending arms shipment under the Brown Amendment would indeed be held up, if it was found that US laws had been flouted.

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But the US Administration's reaction is true to form. During the 1980s when the Russians were in Afghanistan and the Pakistani nuclear programme was at its peak, it kept certifying that Islamabad did not have a nuclear weapons programme. But in 1990, it imposed the Pressler Amendment, barring economic and military aid as president George Bush failed to certify that Pakistan was not building nuclear weapons. Earlier, with Pakistan acting as the frontline state in combating the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan, it suited the US to certify that Pakistan did not have a nuclear weapons programme. This doubles-peak could not be sustained in 1990, when Pakistan lost much of its value with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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Visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Assef Ahmed Ali met Acting Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on February 9. After the 70-minute meeting, a state department spokeswoman said the two "did get intothat issue", but she had no details.

Ali told the press at a subsequent briefing that reports of the sales were "entirely speculative. There's no truth in them. We have flatly denied that any such thing has happened". He said Pakistan had very good relations with China but "there's nothing that should be of concern to theUS". He denied that Talbott mentioned possible US sanctions against Pakistan and said the meeting was called to discuss Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Prithvi missile, and New Delhi's reported intentions concerning nuclear testing.

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Pakistani denials are not new. When the Chinese sale of M-11 missiles took place a few years ago, both Pakistan and China had denied the sale. The American media had charged that the sale violated the Missiles Technology Control Regime (MTCR) since the missiles had a payload of more than 300 kg with a range of over 500 km. The US imposed MTCR sanctions on both China and Pakistan in 1993, which were lifted in the first case and lapsed subsequently for the second. However, despite the denials, it is well accepted that the sale did take place. In any case, there has been a long history of cooperation between China and Pakistan in the missile and nuclear fields.

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Senator Hank Brown doesn't think the issue of US arms supply to Pakistan under the Brown Amendment could be linked to the Chinese sale of nuclear technology. It"really is not related", he said, declining to comment further. Despite his interpretation, it is widely agreed that US arms shipments to Pakistan went forward only on the condition that Islamabad take no new steps to increase its nuclear arsenal.

Senator Larry Pressler said he was "very disturbed" by the nuclear sale because it happened at the same time "that Pakistan and the Clinton Administration were actively lob-bying...to pass the Brown Amendment." He did not think the amendment would ever have been passed if members of Congress were aware of the sale. "Now we face the real and embarrassing prospect of having weakened US nonproliferation laws for Pakistan at the same that time Pakistan was expanding its nuclear weapons capability." He added thata waiver would be "great news" to Pakistan. In a letter to Clinton, he has called for a freeze on all US assistance to Pakistan.

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Representative Benjamin Gilman, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said he intends to ask the president to hold up the arms sale to Pakistan until his committee receives satisfactory answers on the nuclear transfer. Representative Nancy Pelosi, on the House Intelligence Committee said: "There is a clear, verifiable transfer of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan.... It's hard to understand why the US wants to appear weak."

A flurry of critical editorials condemned the Administration's dithering, which the Washington Post declared was "at the edge of incoherent". The New York Times called for punitive action, saying, "waiving the legal penalty for such a flagrant sale of weapons technology to Pakistan, a country whose nuclear programme Washington has been trying to freeze for years, would undercut America's anti-proliferation efforts around the world".

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