- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

The United States is headed for a showdown with Russia and China this week over competing international treaties, one banning the production of nuclear materials and the other trying to prevent an arms race in space.

The squabble is certain to prolong an embarrassing stalemate at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva that has received an unusual rebuke from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, diplomats and analysts said.

U.S. officials said their top priority at the conference is beginning negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), which would ban the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes.

“We believe it is in everybody’s interests to reduce the availability of fissile materials on the streets — [first] for producing bombs, which is a disarmament measure, and [second] preventing terrorists from getting hold of it, [which is] a nonproliferation measure,” said Christina Rocca, the chief U.S. envoy to the conference.

Trying to reach an international agreement on such a ban has been one of the longest-running arms-control exercises since World War II. No agreement was secured during the Cold War, even after the groundbreaking deals between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The latest attempt to negotiate a treaty began more than a decade ago, but diplomats said getting 65 countries to agree to such a document has been difficult.

Now Russia and China have linked negotiations on the FMCT to a treaty that aims to prevent an arms race in space. They are expected to co-sponsor a draft in Geneva tomorrow.

Foreign diplomats and analysts suggested that Washington’s push for the FMCT is an attempt to pre-empt that proposal. State Department officials countered that Moscow and Beijing are trying to upstage Washington with their draft.

“We put our FMCT draft forward in May 2006 and have been pushing it all along, before there was any talk of a treaty on outer space,” one official said. “This is just another attempt to block the FMCT.”

Another official said the United States opposes the Russian-Chinese proposal because it considers the 1967 Outer Space Treaty sufficient, although Washington is “prepared to look at new transparency and confidence-building measures.”

“Given the dual nature of space activities, trying to negotiate something with the idea that you can prohibit the deployment of weapons in outer space but not their development is ludicrous,” he said.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the FMCT faces a “complex diplomatic web,” because “everyone is saying that the other one is the bad guy.”

Four of the five declared nuclear powers — the United States, Britain, France and Russia — have said publicly that they no longer produce fissile material. The fifth, China, has not made such a statement.

China opposes the FMCT, as do India and Pakistan, which still produce highly enriched uranium, analysts say. India also extracts plutonium, and Pakistan is expected to begin doing so in the near future.

India has said it would support the treaty only if it includes a verification mechanism. A verification provision was taken out of the text in the latest U.S. draft, which the Bush administration put on the table after a long review of a series of international treaties and proposals.

The administration said that effective verification was impossible to achieve.

Iran, Syria and Israel also are expected to object to the FMCT text.

The Conference on Disarmament, established in 1979, is desperate to break its long stalemate. Mr. Ban voiced frustration with the body’s inability to overcome differences last month at its opening session for this year.

“Even with widespread agreement on the gravity of threats to international peace and security, you still have not been able to find common cause to address them,” he told the delegates. “I’m deeply troubled by this impasse over priorities.”

John Zarocostas reported from Geneva.

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