- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

GENEVA

A tough set of demands by China is threatening to derail the best chance in years to open formal negotiations to ban the production of fissile nuclear bomb-making materials, top Western diplomats say.

“We had all hoped for a positive answer. But the sign from China is a camouflaged rejection. The signal Beijing is sending is that they are not willing to negotiate on a fissile-material cutoff treaty (FMCT),” a senior Western official said.

China is the only nuclear-weapons power with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council that does not have a moratorium on the production of weapons-making fissile materials.

The other four — the United States, Russia, France and Britain — have publicly declared they have stopped producing such materials and have said at the U.N.-based Conference on Disarmament that they can live with an existing draft text as a basis for opening talks on an FMCT.

Among other declared nuclear weapons states, Pakistan and India are still producing nuclear bomb-making materials, Israel has never confirmed any nuclear activities, and it’s not clear what North Korea will do. Iran is pursuing the development of fissile materials in defiance of global pressure led by the United States. The U.S. believes its real goal is to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability.

A pact such as that being sought in Geneva would put a cap on the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium used to make bombs and help curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has stressed that an FMCT treaty “would be a prerequisite for sustainable nuclear disarmament” and has called on negotiators to “demonstrate the political resolve to take difficult measures.”

The finely balanced draft text was compiled by six rotating presidents — Sri Lanka, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Syria — at sessions of the 65-country Conference on Disarmament, which includes the United States.

Since the current compromise language was circulated on March 23, Beijing has been under heavy pressure to say whether it supports it or not, diplomats said.

The so-called “presidential draft” calls for negotiations to begin “without any preconditions, on a nondiscriminatory and multilateral treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices.”

The paper also envisages “substantive discussions” on issues related to prevention of an arms race in outer space, nuclear disarmament and prevention of nuclear war, and assurances against the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.

Cheng Jingye, China’s disarmament ambassador, said in a presentation to delegates last week that there was still room for improvement, and alluded to a need for the draft text to include a verification mechanism.

The Chinese envoy also said the draft needs to spell out clearly the possibility of negotiating a new treaty on outer space.

Both linkages would pose problems for the United States, diplomats said. They pointed out that the draft text has been left intentionally vague on some points in order to narrow the divide and get talks under way.

Envoys say the draft leaves it for future FMCT negotiators to decide whether a verification regime should be included in the treaty. This made it possible for Washington to support talks despite its assessment that an FMCT is not verifiable.

That assessment, outlined in a draft FMCT tabled by the United States in May 2006, is not shared by many arms-control experts and close allies of the U.S., who believe a treaty would need a verification regime.

The U.S. also has consistently objected to linking talks on an FMCT to other issues, such as talks on outer space.

“The FMCT is the only issue before the [Conference on Disarmament] that is ripe for negotiations,” Christopher Ford, the U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said March 17.

Mr. Cheng told The Washington Times: “I hope to see improvements, that’s the message.”

But some senior Western envoys counter that unless China backs down, the chance of opening formal negotiations after 10 years of deadlock will be completely wrecked.

The same sources say they think China, with its new demands, wants to raise issues so unpalatable that other major powers would be forced to reject the demands and thus take the blame for blocking FMCT negotiations.

According to some senior diplomatic sources close to Beijing, China’s arms-control diplomats may have lost out in a policy battle with the country’s powerful military.

“China has moved to block negotiations in the conference on an FMCT,” declared one senior diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Any hope of salvaging the talks, one envoy said, depends on whether “China has just closed the door, for people to knock with offers, or whether they have bolted it.”

During the session, Nigeria urged the conference to act for the collective good and build up the international security architecture.

Similarly, the delegation of the Netherlands said the presidential draft was the best compromise and feared the conference was now going backwards.

The last treaty concluded by the conference was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996.

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