Washington, 17 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. administration says it is seriously concerned about allegations of Chinese nuclear theft and about Beijing's human rights record, but does not think it wise to tie those problems to trade and economic relations.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said it would be like America shooting itself in the foot to tie commerce to espionage and human rights:
"China must prove a willingness to open its markets on commercial terms, and this is an effort that has been going on for several administrations. And we want to see if China comes forward with new market-opening proposals. We are obviously pushing this very hard and we think progress could be measured by substantive market-opening commitments and not other issues of concern."
Two senators, including the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), have circulated a letter demanding that the White House stop any effort to help China join the World Trade Organization (WTO). White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart responded Monday, saying:
"I think what we've heard from Senator Hollings and Senator Helms was basically on the issue of WTO and trying to link that somehow to other issues and somehow to the labs. I think that would be unfortunate. I think we, three or four administrations going back, you know, 13 years we have been negotiating with the Chinese to find some way to bring them in a commercially viable way into the WTO, because it's in the interest of America and it's in the interest of American business.
"If you look at the situation now, China enjoys much of the WTO benefits as far as access to our market, but American business doesn't enjoy access to the Chinese market that the WTO brings. So I think it would be wrong to try to link these issues. Our China policy is based on our national interest, what's in America's interest. We have made some progress on moving the Chinese toward a viable negotiation, and I think we should continue working that way."
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky says China will not be given any political deals, but must agreed to world trading standards if it hopes to get into the WTO.
The whole issue was raised after it was recently disclosed that an employee of one of America's top-secret nuclear laboratories allegedly gave secrets to China on how the U.S. builds miniature nuclear warheads.
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is conducting a study to see how extensive the damage from that theft may have been to American security. A number of Republican members of congress have criticized the Clinton administration for allegedly failing to tighten security at the labs when it first learned of the espionage more than two years ago.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson met behind closed doors with senators Tuesday to review what happened. He told a follow-up public session that security has been tightened at all the laboratories and that visiting scientists from so-called sensitive nations, such as China, Russia and India, are now having background checks run before they're allowed in.
But Richardson warned against blanket reactions to cut China off because of this incident. It's better to engage the Chinese than isolate them, he told two senate committees. Still, there are many areas of disagreement between the U.S. and China, said Richardson:
"Missile technology exports and human rights, proliferation, trade. Many areas. We believe that by engaging China we have achieved results in all of these areas. Specifically, we got them to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty, the chemical weapons convention. They have stopped proliferation activities with Pakistan and Iran. We believe that they have also curtailed their missile technology exports around the world through, I won't call it American pressure, but American intervention."
The charge of Chinese espionage brought the congressional focus onto a number of U.S. programs in nuclear cooperation, including one with Russia. The Nuclear Cities project is a joint U.S.-Russian effort to help retrain scientists and other workers in Russia's nuclear weapons industry for commercial enterprise. The idea, says Richardson, is to keep those scientists from selling their nuclear weapons expertise to rogue nations, such as North Korea or Iraq:
"We are targeting 30,000-50,000 nuclear scientists, engineers, and technical workers that will be displaced, which represent nearly 30 percent of the nuclear work force.
"What are the conditions? There are a number that we are working on, trying to update their telecommunications infrastructure, open business development centers, the extension and implementation of existing programs on entrepreneurial activity. This is done in cooperation with Commerce, AID, USIA. We are trying to implement a number of U.S. and American-Russian business initiatives."
Richardson says the program has already helped nearly 6,000 Russian nuclear weapons workers. The U.S. intends to double the amount it's spending on the nuclear cities program to $30 million in next year's budget.