The Clinton administration's pursuit of improved relations with Communist China appears to be bearing fruit.
Beijing has quietly told the United States it is canceling the sale to Iran of a plant that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons, administration officials say. In return, Beijing expects the White House to move toward allowing it to buy civilian nuclear technologies from US firms.
China's decision to cancel the sale of the uranium hexifloride conversion plant would constitute a major success for the Clinton administration's effort to seek improved relations with the Asian economic and military power. It would also represent a significant achievement in the administration's efforts to block transfers of nuclear technologies to Iran's Islamic regime, which the US accuses of supporting terrorism and pursuing a secret atomic-weapons program. Iran denies the charges.
"The Chinese have told us that based on their expectation that we would be able to build on our nuclear cooperation program, they will not execute this contract [with Iran]," says an administration official. "We believe that if we can continue to work together on nuclear issues and nonproliferation issues, this is something we can address."
US officials have been pressing China for months to cancel its deal with Iran. Uranium hexifloride conversion plants are an important step in the process of enriching uranium for use as fuel for nuclear power plants or material for atomic weaponry.
By canceling the deal, Beijing would help President Clinton certify to Congress that the Chinese are meeting US nuclear nonproliferation laws. Such certification would allow Mr. Clinton to implement for the first time a 1985 Sino-US nuclear cooperation pact permitting American firms to sell to China nuclear-power reactors. China desperately needs such reactors to overcome serious electricity shortages that are impeding its industrial expansion.
The US nuclear industry has been furiously lobbying the White House to implement the cooperation agreement, arguing that Russian, French, and Canadian companies are already well ahead in grabbing pieces of the largest economic pie of its kind.
Canceling the deal with Iran does not automatically guarantee Clinton's certification of China's nonproliferation credentials. The US also wants Beijing to put in place a system that prevents top nuclear-related exports to states suspected of illegally developing atomic arms.
But assuming China does cancel the uranium hexifloride plant sale, a senior administration notes that "it is certainly a major step forward and fits with their broader commitment not to provide assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities."
The administration says China privately gave that commitment in May after the US confronted it with evidence that it had sold nuclear technologies to Pakistan, which is believed to have a secret nuclear-weapons program.
Promoting civilian nuclear cooperation is a key component of the US policy of "constructive engagement" with Beijing. It aims to ease tensions over China's abysmal human rights record, piracy of US music and movies, and sales of conventional and nuclear-related military technologies to Iran and Pakistan. The greatest frictions are over US support for Taiwan, which China regards a renegade province.
The administration contends that by concentrating on areas of agreement, the US has a better chance of resolving differences with China and averting a cold war-style rivalry that could destabilize East Asia, a key trade region. Critics decry the policy as appeasement and say the US should take a harder line on objectionable Chinese conduct.
Some experts say they are skeptical that China will abide by its assurance that it has scrapped the uranium hexifloride plant sale to Iran. They point to its track record of backtracking on similar undertakings.
"The question with China is what do you believe and who do you believe, given the terrible history of the last decade," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center. "No one should be popping corks yet."
An administration official argues that Beijing knows its own interests are served by keeping Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions in check. "They are closer to that neighborhood than us," he notes.
Until now, US efforts to halt nuclear technology transfers to Iran have yielded poor results. Despite US objections, Russia has refused to halt the construction of two light-water nuclear-power reactors at Bushehr, Iran. Russia will also provide the reactor fuel.