Sunday, March 19, 2006

US rail-related export to China questioned

US rail-related export to China questioned
By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of a congressionally chartered panel questioned on Friday a Bush administration decision to sell China a high-tech system used to spot railroad-track glitches because of its potential to help China's military.

"The big issue for me is, were the right questions asked," said Larry Wortzel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and an ex-U.S. Army attache in Beijing.

At issue is a so-called inertial reference system that gauges irregularities in track geometry.

Wortzel, chairing a hearing on China's military modernization and U.S. export controls, said Beijing's main means of moving ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads was by rail.

"Every time the Chinese military has really surprised us with some military movements or assemblies or nighttime deployments or movements of missiles, it's been by rail," he added in a telephone interview with Reuters.

"You just kind of slap your head and say, 'Did they even ask'?" he said. The 12-member U.S.-China panel was created in 2000 to investigate and submit to Congress an annual report on the national security implications of bilateral trade and the economic relationship.

China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies "that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages absent U.S. counter strategies," the Pentagon said in a congressionally mandated report last month.

The Pentagon recommended the rail-curvature measuring system for export to China along with only a handful of other items on a so-called U.S. "munitions" list it cleared in the past two years, an official told Wortzel's panel.

Beth McCormick, acting director of the Pentagon's Defense Technology and Security Administration, said her office also had recommended export licenses for a bomb-disposal containment vessel for Chinese security training before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as well as several commercial satellites.

The Pentagon made its recommendations to the Commerce Department, which determines the final U.S. government position, said Maj. Paul Swiergosz, a Pentagon spokesman.