Washington: The Obama administration on Tuesday urged senators to support a new 30-year agreement with China on civilian nuclear cooperation but faced a barrage of 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 non-proliferation record has "improved markedly" since the last agreement was signed in 1985, "though it can still do better." He said he could not confirm that Chinese firms have stopped selling such technology.
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."
Republicans and Democrats acknowledged economic benefits for the U.S. nuclear industry from cooperation with China, but voiced wide-ranging concerns over Beijing's sticking to its international obligations.
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.
"To me, this agreement presents us with a golden opportunity to place pressure on China to halt these dangerous activities," Cardin said.
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. But it has decided to build more power reactors in Pakistan, although its facilities are not under international safeguards.
Countryman, who heads the State Department's bureau of international security and nonproliferation, acknowledged that was inconsistent with China's commitment as a Nuclear Suppliers Group member.
Democratic Sen. Edward Markey voiced the strongest opposition to the new agreement.
He said China has failed to take enforcement action against Li Fangwei, also known as Karl Lee, a Chinese man who has been indicted in the U.S. for allegedly contributing to Iran's ballistic missile program and making millions of dollars in illegal financial transactions to avoid economic sanctions.
"It's quite clear that there are entities within China who continue to sell materials that could have dual use application into this international nuclear weapon and ballistic missile marketplace in the same way A.Q. Khan was doing it out of Pakistan," Markey said.
"I think it's preposterous to conclude that the Chinese government is incapable of shutting this down," he said.
Khan is a Pakistani scientist who operated an illicit network that sold nuclear weapons technology to countries such as Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Corker said the committee faces a "difficult task" in reviewing the China 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 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 cooperation 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.