BONN — Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Cabinet agreed Wednesday to support President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative by negotiating an agreement with the United States that will allow West German companies to participate in the research for the controversial project.
The move put Kohl's government on record, along with Britain, in support of the principle of research to develop a space defense against nuclear missiles, a system often referred to as "Star Wars."
The West German Cabinet made it clear, however, that there will be no official government involvement with the program or any direct government subsidies for the firms that participate.
Rather, the Cabinet indicated, it has simply approved the principle that West German companies can bid on contracts being offered by the U.S. government or by American firms engaged in primary work on the vast project.
The government also stressed the importance of discussing the "strategic, arms control and political consequences of SDI research" within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Government sources told the Associated Press that West Germany will seek a formal discussion about the implications of the program for NATO next year.
The Cabinet said the West Germans would still like to see a common European position on "Star Wars," but it is believed that the United States wants to avoid a full-fledged NATO debate on the merits of the program until the research phase of the program is completed and it becomes clear whether space-based weapons are feasible.
So far, Britain is the only U.S. ally that has signed a formal agreement to participate in "Star Wars" research. France has harshly criticized the plan, and other European allies have expressed concern that the basic concept of erecting a shield against Soviet missiles would be more of a defense against the long-range Soviet weapons capable of reaching the United States than against the shorter-range missiles aimed at Europe.
The Italian government also has been considering whether to participate in the Strategic Defense Initiative, and it is widely expected to enter into an agreement that would provide for some participation by Italian firms.
Kohl's chief spokesman, Friedhelm Ost, told a news conference Wednesday that the Cabinet had approved talks beginning next month on an overall framework under which German firms could participate in the research on the plan. He indicated that the government hopes to complete negotiations on an agreement with Washington by late March.
Kohl appointed Economics Minister Martin Bangemann to fly to Washington in January to start talks with U.S. officials on the guidelines that will govern West German companies on such matters as technology transfers, patent rights and secrecy regulations involved in bidding on the SDI contracts. The choice of Bangemann was regarded here as a shrewd move, for he also is the leader of the Free Democrats, the minority party in Kohl's governing coalition.
The Cabinet's move came after months of debate within the coalition about whether West Germany should join the program. Kohl's Christian Democratic Party has strongly supported "Star Wars," but the Free Democrats, the junior partner, have been dubious.
Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a former head of the Free Democrats, has publicly blown hot and cold on the "Star Wars" project, sometimes criticizing it for being impracticable and an obstacle to arms control agreements with the Soviets.
Other West German critics have also warned that West German participation could hurt Bonn's carefully cultivated relations with neighboring East Germany.
Bonn has invited East German leader Erich Honecker to visit West Germany, but it is thought he may reconsider in light of the Cabinet's decision on "Star Wars."
On Wednesday, Honecker reportedly told a West German politician that Bonn's participation in the U.S. missile-defense research program "would not destroy, but at a minimum (would negatively) affect" East-West relations. The politician, Gerhard Schroeder, a Social Democratic candidate for governor in Lower Saxony state, said he spoke to Honecker during a trip to East Germany.
U.S. officials in Bonn have said privately that they would have preferred a specific government-to-government accord enlisting West German support for the project, but they appear pleased that the Germans are participating, regardless of the legal arrangements.
While the West German government, like the government of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is not overly enthusiastic about the missile-defense project, authorities here say it does not want to appear to be at odds with the United States and it does not want to miss out on the technological benefits that might accrue to companies participating in the high-tech research.
For weeks, Kohl has quietly let it be known that he wanted to go along with President Reagan's defense initiative; the only question had been in what form the West Germans would participate, and that issue was not really resolved by Wednesday's government statement.
After the announcement, the Soviet news agency Tass denounced the Cabinet move, declaring that the West German government was getting involved with the Strategic Defense Initiative only to rearm its military forces with nuclear weapons.