Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government has come under attack from political opponents for leaving West Germany vulnerable to more severe curbs on high-technology exports to the East Bloc because of commitments undertaken with the United States in joining the "Star Wars" research program.
The opposition Social Democrats have warned of grave future damage to the country's export industries following the release of two confidential pacts in which Bonn accepted tight security restrictions in the exchange of research findings and promised to toughen laws governing trade in sensitive goods.
West Germany signed two agreements with the United States last month that set forth terms of participation for West German companies in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative and a "joint understanding of principles" on technology transfers. The SDI, familiarly known as "Star Wars," would be an antimissile defense system using space-based technology.
The twin accords were supposed to remain secret, but last Friday the Cologne Express newspaper pubished the complete texts. The Kohl government expressed its outrage over the leak even though several members of ruling coalition parties voiced satisfaction that the accords were made public.
Economics Minister Martin Bangemann, who signed the agreements March 27 in Washington with U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, declared that the leak could have "a damaging effect on West German interests." He said the United States wanted to keep the texts confidential because of continuing negotiations with other allies interested in an SDI research role.
But U.S. Embassy officials said the Bonn government's concern was "probably less over a security breach than the political embarrassment" raised by critics proclaiming that the Kohl government had consented to a bad deal.
The phrasing of the accords indicates that the U.S. administration will retain ultimate control over the use of all results and applications developed under SDI contracts, even though Kohl stipulated that West Germany would only participate if guaranteed a fair share of research findings and that technology benefits would not be confined to "a one-way street" leading to Washington.
The SDI agreement states that West German companies may exploit the results of their work in the program unless the "U.S. government, in conformity with national laws and proprietary rights, decides otherwise for all contracts it finances exclusively," according to an unofficial translation of the German text.
In addition, it says the United States will exercise sole authority in deciding what kinds of research will be deemed secret and what kinds may be applied in the civilian sector.
Some German analysts suggested that these conditions will be invoked so rigorously that foreign companies will have little if any chance of employing their SDI research for commercial purposes.
The Bonn government sought to depict West German involvement as purely a civilian research venture by appointing the Economics Ministry as its negotiating agent. But the United States is still pressing for the Defense Ministry to serve as the primary link between German enterprises and Washington.
The U.S. approved inclusion of a clause specifying that "in the interests of common security . . . a full exchange of know-how" would be encouraged to develop shorter-range missile defenses for the protection of Europe.
This emphasis on sharing research chiefly for military purposes was acknowledged by Bangemann yesterday in a heated parliamentary debate, but he still insisted that West Germany approached participation in the SDI program with "civilian intentions."
The conditions of the technology transfer pact, which Bonn twinned with the SDI accord in hopes of making participation in "Star Wars" research more acceptable to German skeptics in and out of government, have turned out to cause further political controversy following the publication of it and four cover letters.
West Germany, more than other European allies, maintains strong trading links with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Bonn's desire to expand lucrative exports to the East Bloc has led to frequent clashes with the Reagan administration's policy of seeking to block the flow of sophisticated equipment that could benefit the Soviet military sector.
In an exchange of letters between Richard Perle, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense, and his negotiating counterpart in the West German Economics Ministry, Lorenz Schomerus, the U.S. official asked for elaboration of what measures the Bonn government planned to strengthen controls on the export of sensitive technology.
In his reply, Schomerus said Bonn would introduce licensing requirements "for sales of embargoed goods and technologies to certain groups of foreign nationals." He added that such "changes of law will require parliamentary approval."
But Bangemann said yesterday in parliament that such legislative proposals were aimed mainly at inflicting more severe punishment on weapons smugglers and not at legitimate industries.
In his letter, Perle also urged the West Germans to give priority to bilateral consultations with the United States "with a view to harmonizing our approaches to the negotiation of the Cocom list." He was referring to the list of proscribed goods agreed by the 16-nation body that supervises the export of high technology from the West to East Bloc countries.
West German Social Democrats attacked the notion that the Bonn government might break with its European partners and succumb to American pressure to expand the number of forbidden trade items.
Bangemann, however, insisted that West Germany had made no binding commitments because the exchange of letters was not part of the formal agreement.