In spite of Beijing's pledge to halt sales of nuclear technology, Chinese companies have persisted in secretly attempting to sell equipment to Iran and Pakistan for their alleged atomic weapons programs, US officials say.
These procurement efforts were detected by US intelligence in the past four months and apparently thwarted with the cooperation of the Chinese leadership. Still, they have fueled fresh apprehension on Capitol Hill over Beijing's vow to stop what the US sees as the gravest threat to international security of the next century.
Chinese companies are considered by many experts as the main source of banned nuclear technology.
"There appears to be some very questionable activities going on in terms of renaming of companies and changing telephone numbers," says a well-informed American lawmaker, who requests anonymity. "These incidents indicate we can't really trust them [the Chinese]."
The concerns, however, do not appear sufficient to doom or delay President Clinton's decision to lift a 12-year ban on US civilian nuclear sales to Beijing. The ban, which the ailing US reactor industry has pushed hard to end, is to expire in 10 days unless blocked by Congress.
China's willingness to halt nuclear cooperation with Pakistan and Iran is a critical test of Clinton's policy of improving relations with the world's most populous nation and fastest growing economic power. He hopes that better ties will encourage the Communist regime to work for global stability, including curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
American officials insist Beijing is fulfilling its nonproliferation pledges, saying it shut down the recent contacts between state-run Chinese firms and Pakistani and Iranian officials after being alerted by the US. Asserts a senior official: "China is living up to its commitments."
But the lawmaker says it remains unclear if any technology was transferred. "These are people who are conducting themselves in a stealth-like manner."
He and other critics, including independent experts, decry Clinton's China policy as premature and dangerous. They charged that in lifting the ban on US nuclear sales to Beijing, he bowed to US business interests, ignoring repeated Chinese breaches of nonproliferation safeguards and pledges in the past.
China "is the world's foremost proliferator of weapons of mass destruction," warns the Proliferation Primer, a report issued in January by the Senate Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation and Government Services.
The recent alleged Iranian and Pakistani procurement cases were reviewed on Thursday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a closed hearing with US intelligence officials. The panel chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, opposes Clinton's decision to end the ban on US nuclear technology sales to Beijing.
Mr. Helms and other critics are hoping to build support for House-passed legislation that would extend from 30 days to 120 days the period for congressional review of Clinton's action. They argue that the US needs more time to determine if China is fulfilling its nonproliferation vows.
But it seems doubtful the effort will succeed. There is massive support in the Senate for allowing US firms to compete for slices of the $60 billion Chinese civil nuclear market, the largest of its kind anywhere.
"What's amazing to me isn't that the Chinese may be cheating again, but that we don't care," says Henry Sokolski, director of the Washington-based Non-Proliferation Study Center and a former Pentagon official.
China has long sought US-made nuclear power technology. But its supplies of nuclear technology to what the US charges are secret Iranian and Pakistani weapons programs had held up implementation of a 1985 nuclear cooperation accord.
Tehran and Islamabad deny having such programs, although Pakistan admits having the capability of producing an atomic bomb. China has also sold ballistic missile technologies to both countries.
AT his Oct. 29 summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Clinton agreed to implement the Sino-US pact, certifying to Congress that Beijing had shown "sufficient progress" in ending nuclear cooperation with Tehran and Islamabad.
Clinton cited written Chinese assurances that it had ended nuclear deals with Iran, a 1996 pledge to halt assistance to Pakistan and its creation of controls on exports of nuclear technologies with both civilian and military uses. Beijing, however, has never publicly admitted supplying nuclear weapons-related materials to Iran or Pakistan.
US officials say both countries are pursuing clandestine nuclear technology procurement efforts worldwide.
THEY and congressional sources decline to disclose extensive details of the recent alleged attempts to obtain Chinese-made nuclear technologies. But, they say, they occurred after the Clinton-Jiang summit.
"We have seen a couple of instances since the summit in which Pakistani and Iranian officials were trying to obtain items and materials for their nuclear programs," says the senior official.
Furthermore, the US also monitored efforts by Chinese state-owned firms to cooperate with the Iranians and Pakistanis, sources say.
"These are people who are conducting themselves in a stealth-like manner."
The senior official says the US believes the firms were "trying to hide what they are going from the Chinese authorities. That's not unheard of. I take that as an indication that there are corrupt and unscrupulous Chinese officials and companies."
The US became sufficiently alarmed that National Security Adviser Samuel Berger wrote to his Chinese counterpart expressing "deep concern" over what the US had detected, sources say.
The Chinese leadership responded by intervening with the companies and halting the contacts with the Iranians and Pakistanis, they say. Says the senior official: "We feel pretty comfortable that the Chinese government has taken actions to stop them."
But he says the US will continue to monitor Chinese actions "very carefully."
Some congressional sources, however, are deeply disturbed about the US response to the incidents and the subsequent Chinese actions.
"We have the spectacle of the Clinton administration querying China on whether it is providing Iran and Pakistan with nuclear technologies at the same time that presidential certification to the contrary is pending before the Senate," says a senior GOP congressional official.