Former Sen. Jim Sasser, President Clinton's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to China, told members of Congress on Thursday that Beijing has secretly taken new steps to curb its export of missile parts and technology.
Appearing at his nomination hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Tennessee Democrat said that China recently has made "some gestures" toward cooperating with Clinton Administration efforts to stop the spread of ballistic missiles around the world. He refused to provide specifics, saying he could do so only in a closed session where he could discuss classified information.
An Administration official said later that Sasser was referring to a U.S. intelligence report suggesting that China recently has reined in its sales of missile parts. But he cautioned that "there have been no broader assurances to us" that China will stop selling dangerous missile technology.
A spokesman for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency maintained that Sasser was "not quite right. . . . There's no new information" that China has limited its exports.
Sasser's performance at the hearing made it plain that, as ambassador to China, he would rely on his old ties in the Senate to try to win greater support on Capitol Hill for the Administration's policy toward Beijing.
Even the strongest opponents of the policy treated Sasser with kid gloves. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), for example, called him "Jim" and told him, "You're my good friend."
When Sasser said he might attend the Oct. 24 meeting between Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in New York City if his nomination is confirmed by the Senate by then, Helms told him: "You better go home and pack."
Helms, who has been holding up more than a dozen ambassadorial nominations in an effort to get the Administration to agree to his proposals for restructuring the State Department, recently decided to let some of the nominations go forward.
Sasser was defeated when he ran for reelection to the Senate in November and was nominated as ambassador to Beijing in the spring. The main obstacle to his appointment has not been the Senate Republicans but the Chinese government.
In May, after Clinton opened the way for Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to make an unprecedented visit to this country, China stopped cooperating with the United States in a number of areas that usually would be considered routine.
As part of this broader policy, China refused to give the necessary approval for Sasser's appointment as ambassador, effectively holding up the nomination. Chinese officials relented last month as the dispute over Taiwan began to ease.
Sasser told the Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that he planned to make human rights one of his top priorities in Beijing.