Scrutinize the US-China nuclear pact

CHINA has long held a unique appeal for Americans. Over the decades that land has seemed to combine many of the characteristics of the American experience itself, from its teeming coastal cities like Shanghai to China's own Western-like outback. Setting aside for the moment the strained Korean war period, the affection millions of Americans have felt for China throughout much of this century has been well expressed in the popular fiction of Pearl Buck. And, yes, part of China's appeal for Americans over the years has been the attraction of financial gain.

Today, many US corporations and businesses are eager to jump aboard China's current economic modernization drive.

The Washington visit of Chinese President Li Xiannian vividly illustrates the complex nature of the US-China relationship -- particularly the eagerness of the US to reach agreements that might be of economic or military benefit. The two sides reached accords in such areas as trade, nuclear cooperation, and culture.

What must now be examined by Congress, however, is the extent to which the main agreement reached between the two parties -- a joint nuclear-power sharing agreement -- is in the best interests of the American public and, indeed, the world community.

The nuclear agreement, which would allow Peking to buy US civilian nuclear power reactors, was originally initialed during President Reagan's visit to Peking over a year ago. The agreement was put on hold by the administration, however, because of Washington concern over China's nuclear policies. China, although a nuclear power, has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, although Peking has indicated that it is opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons. Still, there is evidence that China has aided Pakistan in the latter's efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

Why, then, has the administration suddenly become so eager to go ahead with the nuclear pact with China, as it did last week, despite earlier reservations?

The answer involves many of the historical and political elements noted above. Strategically, the US cannot help being concerned at the somewhat better diplomatic ties now developing between Moscow and Peking. China, for example, recently signed a new trade accord with the Soviets. Given the administration's overriding foreign policy preoccupation of containing the Soviets, it is understandable that the White House might be eager to reach agreements that would help shore up a continuing US-Chinese strat egic linkage.

And, of course, there is the economic factor. China plans to build from eight to 10 nuclear power reactors during the next 10 years. The French and West Germans are seeking to win the contracts to build those facilities. The US nuclear industry, meanwhile, is in economic difficulty because of slackened demand for nuclear sites at home. It, too, would like to win the China contracts.

But at the same time, Washington must honor its own long-range goals, including that of nonproliferation. Congress should review the new accord carefully. If the accord provides proper safeguards against proliferation, it can be speedily approved. But if it lacks such safeguards, Congress need feel no qualm in turning down this particular agreement. Further, failure to provide assurances against proliferation would be inconsistent with the administration's avowed goal of keeping high technology and othe r military-related products out of the hands of the Soviet Union -- or other potential adversaries.

Ensuring that the nuclear pact meets stringent American laws relating to nonproliferation ought not be used as a convenient excuse for undermining the US-China relationship -- a goal of some conservatives in the US hostile to Peking. Clearly, amicable US-China ties are beneficial to both nations and must continue to be nurtured.

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