WASHINGTON — China recently rebuffed an American arms-control proposal that it should join the main international organization for limiting the spread of missile technology when President Clinton visits Beijing this summer, senior administration officials say.
By not becoming a member of the 29-nation group, known as the Missile Technology Control Regime, China retains the ability to sell some components or technology for ballistic missiles to countries such as Pakistan and Iran.
Clinton administration officials had hoped that an agreement bringing China into the group could be the centerpiece of the president's trip in late June. A separate accord on nuclear cooperation was the focal point of Clinton's Washington summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in October.
But now that the idea has fallen through, administration officials are exploring other themes and lesser deals that might be highlighted when Clinton goes to China. One point administration officials say they will stress, for example, is that Clinton's trip will be the first chance for a top-level meeting with China's dynamic new premier, Zhu Rongji.
The unsuccessful U.S. initiative on missiles came in a late-March visit to Beijing by John Holum, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He and other administration officials laid out a proposal under which China would become a full member of the missile-control group soon and, in exchange, would gain greater access to American commercial space technology, senior U.S. officials said.
But China showed no enthusiasm for such a deal. Instead, U.S. officials say, Chinese officials repeated to Holum their long-standing objections to joining the group. They said they would be happy to get more American space technology but not if it was linked to membership.
China has said the missile group amounts to a Western club, imposing export rules that Beijing had no role in drafting. Chinese officials have also argued that it is unfair for the United States to seek limits on missile technology, while Washington itself exports F-16 jet fighters that might also be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction.
Chinese officials "consider the [group] a cartel," said Bates Gill of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "It's led by the United States. And membership would crimp their room for maneuver in dealing with various countries like Pakistan and Iran."
Although China did not slam the door on joining the missile accord someday, administration officials have given up hope of getting it to join soon or in time for Clinton's trip.
For more than a decade, U.S. officials have been trying to persuade China to stop exporting missiles or missile technology to the Middle East. The American efforts began when U.S. intelligence discovered that China had sold intermediate-range missiles to Saudi Arabia and was preparing to sell advanced, solid-fuel missiles to several other countries.
On several occasions, the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations have won commitments about missile exports from Beijing, only to discover later on that China was continuing to help other nations' missile programs.
The Bush administration won what it considered a milestone accord in 1992 that China, while not joining the missile group, would obey its rules. But later that year, U.S. intelligence reported that China had exported its new, solid-fuel M-11 missiles to Pakistan. Chinese officials later explained that, in their interpretation, this type of missile wasn't covered by the rules.
Two years later, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher won a more explicit agreement from China under which Beijing acknowledged that the M-11 missile was covered by the rules and agreed to stop exporting the missile itself. But China since then is said to have kept on exporting missile parts and technology, which it contends are not covered by the agreement.
Some administration critics believe that the attempt to bring Beijing into the missile accord was a bad idea. They argue that China would not obey the rules anyway and that by promising to give China greater access to U.S. commercial space technology, the administration would have been giving away more than it was getting.
"I think it's a good thing the Chinese didn't agree to join," said Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, an independent antinuclear group. "If they did, we would have dropped the barriers to [American] exports to China, when there was no reason to think China would change its export behavior."
The idea of offering China greater access to U.S. space technology is itself controversial because of the recent disclosure that two American space companies, Hughes Electronics in El Segundo and New York-based Loral Space & Communications, are under criminal investigation for possible violation of export-control laws in their help for China's rocket program.