China and Non-Proliferation

In terms of proliferation, China has come a long way since the 1960s, when its declared policy was to support nuclear proliferation as a means of what it called "breaking the hegemony of the superpowers.

In terms of proliferation, China has come a long way since the 1960s, when its declared policy was to support nuclear proliferation as a means of what it called "breaking the hegemony of the superpowers."  It has also come a long way since the 1980s, when it provided direct support to the nuclear weapons program in Pakistan and engaged in activities that would have been clear violations of the NPT had China been a party to the NPT at the time.  

During the 1990s, China made substantial progress in adopting international nonproliferation norms, joining international agreements, and controlling exports of sensitive goods and technologies.  Yet, throughout that period, China still had the reputation of being an indiscriminate proliferator, willing to sell almost anything to anybody.  This was a rap that the Chinese did not entirely deserve, but, nonetheless, it remains as such in the public mind.  Part of the reason for this bad reputation is that China's progress in complying with and enforcing nonproliferation standards has been so uneven over the years.  The pattern has often been two steps forward, one step back. 

In the area of multilateral agreements, China joined the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and it signed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT was particularly tough for China, because, unlike the other four members of the "permanent five" (P-5), China was the only one with ongoing testing requirements and it decided to give them up to join the CTBT.  It also joined the NPT nuclear suppliers' committee (the Zangger Committee) and it is the first of the P-5 countries that took the steps necessary to bring the International Atomic Energy Agency's strengthened safeguards protocol into force in its country.  Yet at the same time, it has held negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty hostage to its concerns about U.S. missile defenses; it has refused to join the MTCR (missile technology control regime); and its compliance with the BWC and CWC continues to be in doubt.

Its record on regional nonproliferation is also something of a mixed bag.  On South Asia, China was America's closest partner in dealing with the May 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan and has exerted influence on a number of occasions to keep India and Pakistan from going over the brink.  But, at the same time, it has continued, presumably because of its longstanding strategic relationship with Pakistan, to provide very important, enabling missile technology to Pakistan, which has been critical to Islamabad's missile ambitions.   On Iraq, China had a pretty good record of implementing the Security Council embargo on Iraq during the 1990s. And it is clear that China would not have vetoed the second resolution recently had it been put to a vote. At the same time, its record of technology transfers was not unblemished.  It provided fiber optic cable to Iraq, which helped Iraq upgrade its anti-aircraft systems.  Moreover, once the United States abandoned the effort to obtain a second Security Council resolution, China has become increasingly negative and has even called the current U.S. military operation "illegal."  (See Wang Yizhou's comments in last week's In the National Interest for a sense of the Chinese perspective on Iraq, at

On North Korea, China played an important role behind the scenes in achieving the Agreed Framework of 1994.  Now, in private, it is conveying very strong opposition to North Korea's nuclear efforts, but it is also clear that China is not prepared to use all the leverage at its disposal to bring the North Koreans around.

It has been in the area of sensitive exports where, on the one hand, China's progress has been the most impressive but where, on the other hand, remaining shortcomings have caused the greatest controversy.  Let's examine the record in greater detail.

In 1992, China sold M-11 ballistic missiles to Pakistan.  In 1994, as part of a deal to end M-11-related sanctions, China pledged not to sell complete missiles of "MTCR class" (i.e., capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload to a range of at least 300 kilometers).  And in fact, since that time, we have no evidence China has actually sold complete missiles of that category.


In 1995, a Chinese company sold ring magnets to Pakistan's uranium enrichment program.  In 1996, after the United States withheld all Export-Import Bank loans to China for a period of over three months, China pledged not to provide any assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities in Pakistan or anywhere else in the world.

In 1997, in the run-up to Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington and in exchange for a certification by President Clinton that would enable a U.S.-China peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement to enter into force, China agreed not to engage in any new nuclear cooperation with Iran and to phase out two existing projects in a relatively short period of time.  It also agreed to put comprehensive, nuclear-related export controls in place. And it joined the Zangger Committee.  Earlier, it had terminated the sale of two nuclear power reactors to Iran and turned down Iran's request to acquire a research reactor that was highly suitable for the production of plutonium.  And it ended support for a very important facility in Iran, a uranium conversion facility.  Years later, a senior Chinese official involved in all this told me in private that the reason China was willing to cut off support for Iran was that Chinese intelligence had taken into account the information the U.S. had shared about Iran's plans and intentions and had come to the same conclusion we had -- that Iran was in fact seeking nuclear weapons.