BEIJING -- China, the only major nuclear power not to have agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said yesterday that it has decided "in principle" to accede to the pact.
The promise to sign the treaty came from Chinese Premier Li Peng during an opening talk yesterday afternoon with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, said spokesmen for both the Chinese and Japanese foreign ministries.
"For the purpose of promoting the realization of the objective of the comprehensive prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, the Chinese government has decided in principle to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," Wu Jianming, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a news briefing last night.
Mr. Wu described the Chinese promise to sign the treaty as unconditional, but he would not say when China would actually sign the agreement.
China had long refused to sign the 1968 international pact controlling the transfer of nuclear weapons and related technologies, saying that the treaty was a tool for maintaining the dominance of the superpowers.
But China has also claimed for most of the past decade that it opposes nuclear proliferation and would not practice it.
This stance was called into question this summer by accusations that China had exported nuclear weapons technology to Iraq and had helped Algeria build a nuclear reactor for military use.
China denies the allegations.
Mr. Wu would not detail why China has shifted its position, except to say that "things have changed."
Among the changes that appear to have led to the Chinese decision is the rise of global disarmament as a major international issue in the wake of the Persian Gulf war.
Another change is the recent decision of France to become a signatory to the treaty, leaving China as the sole nation among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council not to sign it.
Additionally, China has faced pressure from the United States in recent months over its sales of both nuclear and conventional arms.
Because of concerns over Chinese weapons sales, the United States has limited the transfer of certain advanced technologies to China, and Congress has also tried to attach arms sales conditions to the renewal of China's favorable trade status.
China first indicated that it was seriously considering adhering to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty during a visit here in June by Reginald Bartholomew, U.S. undersecretary of state for international security affairs.
Chinese officials also told Mr. Bartholomew that they were studying accepting controls on the transfer of missiles capable of carrying nuclear and chemical warheads under another non-proliferation treaty, the Missile Technology Control Regime.
During his meeting with Mr. Kaifu yesterday, Prime Minister Li did not make any promises in regard to the latter missile treaty.
He also said that China would discuss further with Japan a Japanese proposal to initiate an international reporting system that would make public the transfer of conventional weapons, a proposal that Japan wants to put before the U.N. General Assembly this fall with China as a co-sponsor.