WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies have told the Clinton administration and Congress that China has continued to aid Pakistan's effort to build long-range missiles that could carry nuclear weapons, according to several officials with access to the intelligence reports.
The revelations are complicating President Clinton's effort to win quick Senate passage of a bill establishing normal trade relations with China.
In a series of classified briefings on Capitol Hill, most recently on Thursday, the agencies have described how China stepped up the shipment of specialty steels, guidance systems and technical expertise to Pakistan, China's longtime strategic ally, after India and Pakistan set off rival nuclear tests in 1998.
Chinese experts have also been sighted around Pakistan's newest missile factory, which appears partly based on a Chinese design, and shipments to Pakistan have been continued over the past eight to 18 months, several of the officials said.
On Tuesday, the administration is sending a large delegation to Beijing to raise the issue in detail, the first high-level negotiations over missile exports since November 1998.
The ties between China's military and Pakistan run deep — both consider India their greatest threat — and the general said "part of the issue is, we're not sure how much is going on that the Chinese hierarchy knows about."
Clinton administration officials, trying to head off action by Congress that could place new sanctions on China, say they have been encouraged that China has greatly reduced exports to the Middle East.
But the continuing exports of missile parts and technology to Pakistan are creating a raft of political problems, much as they did during the last presidential election, when Clinton decided in May 1996 not to punish China for the sale of $70,000 in equipment that helped Pakistan produce
weapons-grade uranium. The latest revelations appear to be contributing to the reluctance of the Senate leadership to schedule a vote on permanent normal trading relations with China, a bill that already passed in the House.
Moreover, the administration fears that in order to win passage of the trade bill, it may have to accept a bill constraining China's exports of missile technology.
Meanwhile, Iraq flight-tested a short-range ballistic missile earlier last week, a senior Clinton administration official says.
The official said late Friday that the U.S. government monitored the flight but didn't object because under the U.N. resolutions restricting Iraqi weapons programs, Iraq is allowed to test short-range missiles.
"I don't think this is the first flight test since Desert Fox," the administration official said, referring to the short series of air and missile strikes the United States launched against Iraq in December 1998 after U.N. weapons inspectors said the Iraqi government was continually interfering with their efforts to monitor attempts to revive Iraqi biological and chemical weapons programs. He said he wasn't sure how many times Iraq had tested since then.