By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Armed Services Committee urged China to let investigators travel unfettered to the Chinese mainland to probe reports that Chinese-made counterfeit parts are making their way into U.S. weapons and other electronics.
So far, China has declined to grant visas to the committee's staff investigators. They are now in Hong Kong and seeking to conduct unsupervised interviews in nearby Shenzhen, the suspected epicenter for substandard knock-off parts, Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, and John McCain, the panel's top Republican, told a news conference.
A range of U.S. companies interviewed by the committee, from military contractors to consumer electronics makers, have pointed "almost totally and exclusively" to China, and more specifically to Shenzhen, in Guangdong province, as a source of counterfeit electronic parts, Levin said.
He said he and McCain, the Republican candidate in the 2008 presidential elections, had sought for more than two months to persuade the Chinese authorities to allow one or two days of interviews on the ground as part of an official Senate investigation.
Levin said Beijing had asked that the investigators delay their proposed trip or, if eventually granted visas, agree to be accompanied by a China official during interviews.
"That is a non-starter," Levin said. "(We) cannot have somebody looking at our staff while they are interviewing people who are relevant to the investigation."
McCain told the press conference that it should be in China's interests, too, to eliminate counterfeit electronic parts 'lest they harm Chinese companies along with others.
Ultimately, he said, what was at stake is the U.S. ability "to defend itself with weapons systems that we can rely on."
A Chinese Embassy spokesman, Wang Baodong, said the matter in question involved law enforcement and China's "judicial sovereignty, which should be respected."
"We've been telling the Congressmen's offices that such issues are supposed to be raised through the normal channel of China-U.S. law enforcement cooperation, and we're ready to stay in touch with the U.S. side," he said by email.
In March, the Armed Services Committee launched a probe into knockoff parts found in the Defense Department's supply chain. McCain and Levin, at the time, called this a growing problem that government and industry shared a common interest in solving.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit and investigative arm, said in a report last year that substandard parts had ended up, for example, in Global Positioning System oscillators used for navigation on more than 4,000 U.S. Air Force and Navy systems.
(Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, John Wallace, Gary Hill)