WASHINGTON—The Obama administration urged senators to support a new 30-year agreement with China on civilian nuclear co-operation but faced concern from both parties that Chinese companies are exporting sensitive technology to Iran and North Korea.
Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that China’s nonproliferation record has “improved markedly” since the last agreement was signed in 1985, “though it can still do better.”
The current agreement expires at the end of the year. President Barack Obama submitted the new agreement to lawmakers April 21 for a period of review lasting 90 days when Congress is in session. If unopposed by legislation, the agreement goes into force.
Frank Klotz, undersecretary for nuclear security at the Department of Energy, said the agreement will “enhance our ability to manage and mitigate the risk of China diverting sensitive nuclear technology to its military programs or re-exporting it without U.S. permission.”
The top-ranking Republican and Democrat on the committee acknowledged there were economic benefits for the U.S. nuclear industry from co-operation with China, but they also voiced concerns.
Republican committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker said China has committed not to assist any country in the development of ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons. But he added, “concerns persist about Chinese willingness and ability to detect and prevent illicit transfers.”
Top-ranking Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin said multiple State Department reports document that Chinese companies and individuals continue to export dual-use goods relevant to nuclear and chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs in Iran and North Korea.
“What is preventing the Chinese from taking action against the companies and individuals we have identified to them?” Cardin said. “To me, this agreement presents us with a golden opportunity to place pressure on China to halt these dangerous activities.”
The original agreement signed in 1985 was delayed for 13 years because of questions over China’s proliferation to countries including Pakistan.
Since then, China has entered various international accords, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group. According to an April report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, China has co-operated with the U.S. on the detection of illicit nuclear materials at ports and border points.
Another proliferation concern is China’s decision to build power reactors in Pakistan, although its facilities are not under international safeguards.
Corker said the committee faces a “difficult task” in reviewing the agreement. He said if the economic benefits of the agreement outweigh the concerns, it should be approved without delay. If not, and the concerns can’t be mitigated, he said the agreement should not be approved.
Countryman, who heads the State Department’s bureau of international security and nonproliferation, said it would be “devastating” to the U.S. nuclear industry to lose access to China’s fast-growing nuclear energy program, where a third of the world’s atomic power plants currently under construction are located.
U.S.-headquartered company Westinghouse is constructing four reactors in China, under a deal reached in 2005, and six more are planned, which it values at $25 billion.
Countryman said that ending co-operation would allow suppliers from Russia and France to gain a greater foothold in the Chinese market. It would also “create new difficulties” in the administration’s efforts to manage the complex U.S.-China relationship, he said.