After two years of legal squabbling, a final decision on plans by the Port of Long Beach to lease a former Navy base to a Chinese shipping company could be just weeks away, port officials say.

The fate of the long-languishing proposal to lease a portion of the former Long Beach Naval Station to China Ocean Shipping Co., or Cosco, currently rests in the hands of a congressional conference committee, which is scheduled to reconvene July 14.

The House of Representatives recently voted to impose an unconditional ban on the deal, citing fears that a new terminal for the Chinese government-owned shipping line could serve as a base for espionage, smuggling and other illegal activities. But the Senate balked at that provision, voting to allow the lease as long as the Clinton administration concludes that it poses no threat to national security.

The conference committee, composed of both House and Senate members, will attempt to reconcile the differences. The Cosco provision is just one part of the massive defense authorization bill, which needs to be passed by both houses and signed by the president.

The generally positive response to President Clinton's recent China visit has port officials "cautiously optimistic" that the Cosco provision will be killed, said Port of Long Beach spokeswoman Yvonne Avila.

"Before the trip, Clinton was really getting blasted (over the administration's China policy)," Avila said. "Now, we think there's a good chance he will sign the waiver."

Larry Kanter

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