Rethink China nuclear pact

CONGRESS has legitimate concerns in calling on the Reagan administration -- as Sens. Alan Cranston, John Glenn, and others are doing -- to justify the new nuclear cooperation pact with China, which, unless altered or curbed, goes into effect early next year. Cranston charges that China has offered to sell, or has sold, sensitive nuclear technology to five nations -- Iran, Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan, and South Africa. Surely, if the charges are true, the nuclear pact with China, signed by President Reagan and Chinese President Li Xiannian during the latter's visit to the United States in July, should either be sharply tightened, to prevent nonproliferation, or scrapped altogether by Congress.

China denies helping other nations to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. But it concedes that it is assisting Pakistan in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. And while China categorically denies having nuclear links with either South Africa or Iran, reports persist that in fact such links exist and are known to the US intelligence community.

It is known that the speaker of Iran's legislative house visited Peking in June, presumably on a shopping trip to buy conventional weapons to be used in Iran's war with Iraq. China says it has not sold conventional weapons to Iran, but, according to critics of the Chinese-US nuclear pact, American intelligence circles reportedly have information that China has in fact done so.

What is going on here? It is certainly in the best interests of both the United States and China that as many bilateral trade and cultural agreements be worked out as possible. And such agreements might also entail limited military or intelligence-sharing ventures. In the nuclear area, however, where the US is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and China is not, caution on Washington's part would seem in order.

The Reagan administration has made the nuclear pact a centerpiece of its relationship with China. And for the US nuclear industry, there is obviously the potential of considerable economic gain to be realized down the road, as Peking goes ahead with its extensive multibillion-dollar A-program. Still, the US ought not enter into a nuclear accord with any nation that is not willing to adhere to strict compliance with US prohibitions against transfer of nuclear materials or technical know-how to third-party nations. China, to its credit, has joined the International Atomic Energy Agency. And it has said that it is against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, even though it is not a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty.

But public assurances are not enough. Congress should pursue the allegations with diligence. If there is any evidence China is providing sensitive nuclear technology to other nations, or has done so, the agreement should be significantly tightened, or, regrettably, rejected.

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