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U.S. Could Seek Nuclear Lab Contacts With China

The United States could seek to establish contacts between U.S. and Chinese atomic scientists in what officials described as a potential effort to warm China's top civilian and armed forces to the possibility of joining strategic nuclear arms discussions with Washington, the Washington Times reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Dec. 12).

The plan -- said to be championed by Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman and addressed at a recent high-level White House security gathering -- intends to encourage China's armed forces to share more information on a clandestine expansion of its nuclear arsenal. Beijing dismissed a January bid by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to initiate bilateral strategic arms discussions, as well as multiple U.S. overtures to the same end.

“This is a way to reach out to (the Chinese) with multilateral arms control programs,” a government source said.

Critics, though, warned that Chinese spies had exploited comparable scientific contacts in the 1990s to obtain sensitive details on the U.S. W-88 warhead and other fielded nuclear weapons.

“We’ve seen this movie before, and it has a bad ending,” another government insider said.

The United States and China are not presently engaging on atomic matters, the Energy Department indicated. “There are periodic meetings to review our China activities, which currently cover a number of areas under our peaceful uses and science agreements,” spokesman Joshua McConaha said.

A contingent of U.S. lawmakers would probably resist the proposal, according to the Times. A GOP-sponsored measure in a pending defense authorization bill would require Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to affirm that Beijing is not assisting the illicit spread of atomic materials or systems before the Obama administration could provide financial support for a planned atomic security site in China. The Pentagon chief would also be required to verify that the site would support Washington's goals (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, Dec. 21).

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