Reflecting the steadily widening gulf between Washington and Beijing, President Bush on Tuesday blocked the export of U.S.-manufactured satellite parts to China to signal his Administration's objection to Chinese missile sales to Third World nations.
Taken with Bush's comments Monday suggesting uncertainty about renewing U.S. trade benefits for China, Tuesday's decision demonstrates the degree to which U.S. relations with Beijing have soured in the nearly two years since the pro-democracy movement was crushed by the Chinese army in Tian An Men Square.
The sale of U.S. satellites, their components and associated technologies requires licenses for export to certain destinations, including China. Bush decided not to approve a licensing request for the export of components for a Chinese domestic communications satellite, Dong Fang Hong 3.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said that at the center of the Administration's thinking were the "serious proliferation concerns" raised by China's role in exporting missiles, missile-technology and nuclear weapons assistance. Beijing's reported clients have included Iran, Pakistan and Algeria.
The decision takes on added significance because Bush, a former U.S. envoy to Beijing, has been seen by critics as reluctant to crack down on China.
"The announcement is significant in two respects," said a White House official. "First, it highlights our concern about nuclear proliferation, where they are suspect. . . . Second, it shows that where there are legitimate concerns, even when it involves China, we are willing to act."
Among the concerns of U.S. officials has been the assistance that China appears to be giving to Algeria in the development of a nuclear weapons program. The aid, reported by U.S. officials to members of Congress several weeks ago during an intelligence briefing, cast doubt on Beijing's repeated assurances to the United States that China is not engaged in nuclear proliferation and would not help other countries develop nuclear weapons.
Leonard S. Spector, an expert on weapons proliferation issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the allegation involves a reactor under construction at Ain Ouessera, 80 miles south of Algiers.
He said there also have been reports of sales to Pakistan of launchers for the M-11 missile, a weapon capable of carrying nuclear warheads 150 to 160 miles, reports of planned sales to both Iran and Syria and of assistance for a nuclear weapons program in Pakistan, which that nation has denied. "We've had all kinds of reports" on Chinese missile cooperation with the Middle Eastern countries, the White House official said.
While blocking export of the undisclosed satellite parts, Bush decided to waive restrictions on exports for two other projects, known as AUSSAT and FREJA, that will launch satellites from China. Fitzwater said that two U.S.-built AUSSAT satellites will provide communication services for Australia; the Swedish FREJA satellite will be used by civilian atmospheric researchers in the United States, Sweden, Canada, Germany and Finland.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision was not tied to any specific incident. Rather, he said, the deadline was approaching for a decision on the Swedish and Australian projects, and the White House chose to simultaneously announce the President's decisions on those projects and the exports to China.
An aide to a senior congressional Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the White House chose to announce both decisions at the same time to blunt the criticism of China, rather than send a strong signal of disapproval for Chinese policies.
After the attack on the pro-democracy demonstrators in June, 1989, Bush ordered a freeze on all military sales to China, a move that was subsequently enacted into law by Congress. Under that law, any sale of a product on the government's Munitions List, which includes satellite parts, requires a presidential determination that the sale is in the national interest.
"Given our proliferation concerns, it would not have been appropriate to waive the legislative prohibition for the Dong Fang Hong," Fitzwater said in a written statement.
U.S. officials have made a number of statements expressing concern over allegations of China's involvement in proliferation of missiles and nuclear technology. Undersecretary of State Robert Kimmit is scheduled to travel to Beijing on Sunday and is expected to discuss the issue with Chinese officials, a State Department official said.
Indeed, said Fitzwater, "the United States is currently engaged in an intensive dialogue with China on proliferation issues, aimed at encouraging China to observe internationally accepted guidelines on missile and missile-related technology exports."
Spector, of the Carnegie Endowment, said the White House's public decision demonstrates the significance it attaches to the issue.
"There are plenty of licenses that get canceled and you never hear about it. . . . Maybe the Administration is trying to use this as a lightning rod" to demonstrate to the Chinese that they take the issue seriously--and that the next major issue in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, the question of most-favored-nation trade status, could be decided against China. MFN is the big stick," he said.
Many in the Senate have opposed giving trade benefits to China.
On Monday, Bush said in a news conference with agricultural broadcasters that he has tried to make clear to China his concern about human rights abuses, while recognizing "that cutting off all contacts or trying to drive them to their knees economically is not the way to effect change."
"I think it's important that we have reasonable relations with China. I think it's important we have trade relations with China. But, on the other hand, China sometimes doesn't see eye to eye with us on some of the fundamental human rights questions that concern me as President and concern all Americans," he said, adding, "That's a long way of saying I don't know exactly what we're going to do on MFN."