In an 11th-hour bid to demonstrate progress at the first US-China summit in a dozen years, President Clinton yesterday approved a controversial nuclear cooperation accord with China - an agreement designed to curb nuclear proliferation by Beijing and grant US nuclear firms access to the multibillion-dollar Chinese market.
For both Mr. Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, the nuclear agreement highlights the broader diplomatic goals of the summit: Beijing's eagerness to break out of the post-Tiananmen isolation and form a strategic partnership with the United States, and Washington's desire to ensure that China emerges as a responsible world power.
As the centerpiece of the White House summit, the nuclear pact is touted by administration officials as proof that the United States policy of "engagement" with China is working to bring about a new, more cooperative relationship, despite years of acrimony over issues such as Taiwan, trade, weapons proliferation, and human rights.
Outside the Oval Office, however, hundreds of vocal demonstrators reminded both Jiang and Clinton that many Americans remain deeply concerned by the human rights abuses of China's Communist regime, which crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Meanwhile, Clinton's decision to certify China for US nuclear exports was attacked by nonproliferation experts and some members of Congress as dangerously premature.
Citing China's poor track record on nuclear proliferation, they predicted the accord would face intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Congress now has 30 legislative days to debate the agreement.
"We have a right to view Chinese assurances [on nonproliferation] with great skepticism," says Thomas McNaugher, an expert on Asian security issues at the Rand think tank in Washington. "I am very nervous about the summit driving this to a hasty conclusion."
The agreement underscores the powerful role US commercial interests play in driving US-China ties. The struggling US nuclear industry lobbied hard for the administration to lift barriers on its involvement in China's nuclear energy program. US firms have long considered China to be the world's last big market for nuclear reactors and technology, with potential sales estimated at $50 billion.
In order to pave the way for the first export of advanced US nuclear reactor technology to China under a 1985 US-China Nuclear Cooperation Agreement - which was signed but never implemented - Clinton had to certify that China is not helping countries acquire nuclear weapons.
To meet this requirement, administration officials say they successfully lobbied Beijing over the past two years to secure commitments aimed at ensuring China can and will halt its proliferation activities.
China "has made a great deal of progress," says one State Department official, linking improved nonproliferation behavior to "a changing Chinese perspective on the role they want to play in the world."
In May 1996, China pledged to export only to nuclear facilities that are open to international monitoring. US officials say there is no evidence that China has not abided strictly by that agreement.
Also last May, Beijing agreed to bring its regulations on the export of nuclear and nuclear-related technology into line with international standards. New regulations were published last month. More recently, China joined the Zangger Committee, a group of nuclear supplier nations that agree to export restraints.
China aid to Iran
Most important, US officials say, China agreed earlier this month to halt its nuclear assistance to Iran.
Although Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its facilities fall under full-scope safeguards, Washington suspects that Tehran is pursuing nuclear programs that violate the NPT.
Critics argue that Washington should have extracted concessions from Beijing on a broader range of weapons proliferation issues, including chemical weapons and ballistic missiles.
US officials concede that they made less headway in these areas. On chemical weapons, China agreed only to examine its export controls for ways to improve them. The two sides are apparently deadlocked on ballistic missiles.
"When we talk to them about ballistic missiles, they come back to us on [US arms sales to] Taiwan," says another State Department official.
In the end, the official said, the administration took the best deal it could get.
"There is only so much blood you can squeeze from a stone," he said. "If you make it too onerous for the Chinese, they will say: 'We're gone.' "
Such statements are likely to fuel heated debate over the nuclear agreement in Congress, where views on the accord range from strong support, to mistrust, to criticism of what some call an ill-conceived act of "appeasement."
"It is too soon to conclude that China has changed its policies sufficiently to merit access to US nuclear technology," Senators Richard Shelby and Jesse Helms wrote in a letter to Clinton Monday, citing China's "long record of proliferation," frequent violations of past commitments, and history of "deception, evasion, and lying."
But while Senator Shelby and other opponents plan to push to rescind the agreement, observers doubt whether they could muster the required two-thirds vote.
What is more likely, they says, is legislation that would require an additional time period of several months to a year to judge the sincerity of Chinese assurances before US nuclear transfers can take place.
* Jonathan Landay in Washington contributed to this story.