The US-China clash added unexpected friction to the start of the conference which was already promising to be highly charged, with the US and the other nuclear powers pushing for an indefinite, unconditional extension of the NPT and some of the non-aligned nations looking to attach conditions, including swifter progress towards nuclear disarmament.
Even as the conference began, there was still no agreement on the rules for voting on textension, with some non-aligned states pressing for a secret ballot. If the issue is not resolved quickly, some nations could even press for adjournment
Opening the debate, the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, joined in urging the nuclear states to move more quickly towards disarmament and nuclear-free status. "The most safe, sure and swift way to deal with the threat of nuclear arms is to do away with them in every regard. This should be our vision of the future . . . reduction and destruction of all nuclear weapons and the means to make them should be humanity's great common cause".
Mr Christopher stressed the continuing value of the NPT, terming it the "one of the most important treaties of all time". Acknowledging the concerns of the non-aligned countries, he added: "The purpose of the NPT is to preserve the security of all, not the nuclear weapons monopoly of a few. Nuclear weapons states have committed themselves to purse negotiations for nuclear disarmament, which remains our ultimate goal".
The disputed deal between Iran and China centres on the supply of two 300-megawatt pressurised water reactors and Chinese nuclear know-how. A similar transaction was announced between Iran and Russia in January, drawing strong US objections. While the deal might not violate international rules, because the reactors would be subject to international inspection, this had not calmed concern in Washington. "We feel that no nation ought to go forward with nuclear cooperation with Iran", Mr Christopher said. "This is not to single out China. This is a position we have taken with respect to major countries in the world".
Mr Qichen was adamant that China was not transgressing the rules: "We respect the view of the US, but what we have done is consistent with international practice."
Washington has been alarmed over Tehran's possible nuclear ambitions since Israel provided information last autumn suggesting that the Iran was stepping up efforts to purchase equipment for the manufacture of nuclear arms. The report, confirmed by the CIA, said Iran had gone on a nuclear shopping spree in Germany and Switzerland. It is not the first time the nuclear issue has clouded Sino-American relations. China supplied nuclear technology to Pakistan despite US objections.
At the conference, which is likely to last four weeks, the disputes over voting procedures are only a symptom of the underlying tensions between the nuclear haves and have-nots. By hoping to attach conditions to the NPT's renewals, the non-aligned states are seeking to maintain pressure on the nuclear states to continue progress towards complete disarmament as required in Article VI of the treaty.
As an alternative to the indefinite extension of the treaty, these countries, led by Venezuela, Mexico and Indonesia, may propose renewing it for a fixed period or periods. At the end of those periods, pressure could again be applied to the nuclear states finally to relinquish their weapons.
In seeking the right to take the final vote in secret, these states are apparently hoping to avoid being identified as going against America's will with the risk that that might carry of attracting reprisals such as downgraded diplomatic links or reduced aid.
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