U.S., China discuss ending mutual nuclear threat Clinton administration seeks detargeting pact for president's trip to Beijing

June 14, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton prepares for a summit meeting in Beijing this month, the United States and China are trying to negotiate an agreement to no longer target nuclear missiles at each other, senior U.S. officials said yesterday.

The officials also said that Washington is pressing China to codify its promises earlier this month to further restrict the supply of missile technology to Pakistan.

The Asia director of the National Security Council, Sandra Kristoff, is in Beijing trying to complete work on the substantive agenda for Clinton's visit, the first by a U.S. president to China since the crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square nine years ago this month.

Clinton is to leave Washington on June 24, and the deadline of the visit is a great spur to the negotiations. But the Chinese, by past pattern, tend to make their hardest decisions at the last moment, U.S. officials say.

The United States tried to get a mutual detargeting pact with China before President Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington in October, the officials said. But the effort foundered on China's insistence that detargeting be coupled with a mutual pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons in any crisis.

But U.S. strategic doctrine has always rejected pledges of no first use of nuclear weapons, because they are judged essentially meaningless and unverifiable. Also, during the Cold War, there was the real concern that NATO might have to use nuclear weapons to stop a big invasion by Warsaw Pact conventional forces into Western Europe, and Soviet suggestions of no-first-use pledges were always rejected.

"We're not going to change our doctrine in the context of China," a senior U.S. official said yesterday. "There are alliance reasons in Asia not to change it, as well," the official said, referring to the reliance of Japan and Southeast Asian nations on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Detargeting itself, though considered part of "confidence building" between nations, is essentially symbolic, because missiles can be retargeted again in a matter of minutes, experts in nuclear weapons have said.

In a post-Cold War show of good faith, the United States and Russia have announced that they no longer have missiles targeted at each other, but both sides admit that detargeting would barely slow a nuclear exchange -- unlike the separate storage of missiles and warheads, for example, which some nonproliferation experts now advocate.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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