U.S. Turns Focus On COCOM, Allies Seek Fewer Restrictions

By Charles Fleming
Reuters News

January 26, 1988

VERSAILLES, France, Jan 26, Reuter - The United States has turned a spotlight on the usually secretive trade watchdog body Cocom, which meets here this week, to appease Washington hawks seeking tighter limits on exports to communist bloc countries.

Washington was giving a high political profile to the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (Cocom) by sending deputy secretary of state John Whitehead to a two-day Cocom meeting starting on Wednesday, diplomatic sources said.

The United States is expected to come under pressure from other members of Cocom -- which groups Japan and all North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries except Iceland -- to shorten lists of restricted exports to the East bloc.

But by drawing more attention to Cocom, the White House was seeking to convince hawks in the U.S. administration that it stood behind tighter rules for trade in sensitive equipment with potential defence applications, the diplomats said.

"The intention was that this should be one of a series of high-level policy meetings. But in fact it will be out of the ordinary because it's a special political meeting," one European diplomat said.

"France and Germany would both like to see more cleaning out of the lists (of restricted items). Technology has a limited lifespan now and need not be on the list for ever," he added.

West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher criticised Cocom's outdated restrictions in an address at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week.

The lists are compiled and reviewed by Cocom's secretariat. But one diplomat said: "Some items are never taken out. The key problem is when you discuss lists of dual-use items it becomes a question of value judgment."

The lists consisted of border-line cases such as computers and machine tools -- not weapons or wheat, the diplomat said.

Several European countries, including Britain and France, keen to promote trade with the Eastern Bloc since the easing of East-West tensions under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, are expected to back Genscher this week.

"France is in line with Genscher's call for more trade with the East and would like to see more latitude for the countries themselves," sources close to the French delegation said.

The British were also keen to see streamlined lists. "But they think their internal controls are better than other countries', so they might hesitate before supporting a cut-back in the restrictions," one diplomat said.

France said on Monday it had charged four businessmen suspected of illegally shipping electronic and communications equipment to the Soviet Union.

The arrests would underline French calls for a shortening of the lists of export restrictions, diplomatic sources said.

Japan's Toshiba Machine Corp and Norway's national arms firm Kongsberg Vaapenfabrikk were attacked by Washington last year for supplying modern steel milling tools to the Soviet Union, allowing it to advance its submarine propeller technology by up to 10 years.

Tokyo and Oslo formally apologised to Washington. Toshiba's chairman later resigned and Kongsberg broke up.

Japan was also keen to see the lists rationalised in the aftermath of the Toshiba affair, but it would have to adopt a lower profile at the meeting than the Europeans, diplomats said.

(c) 1988 Reuters Limited