China and Non-Proliferation

April 2, 2003

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.  

In 1997-1998, there were indications that China had become unresponsive even to Pakistan's requests for missile assistance.  In particular, China was refusing to fulfill some existing obligations to Pakistan's missile program.  However, after the May 1998 India/Pakistan nuclear tests and after some frictions had developed in the U.S.-China relationship, especially over the bombing of the Belgrade embassy and some U.S. arms sales to Taiwan that Beijing found objectionable, there was a resumption of the missile-related activity that had slowed down over the past few years.  This increased missile export activity led to U.S. threats of new sanctions and these threats, in 2000, were accompanied by a moratorium by the U.S. on the export of satellites to China for launch on Chinese boosters.  We undertook lengthy negotiations with the Chinese throughout 2000 and reached an agreement in November 2000 under which China agreed it would not assist any country in any way to acquire MTCR-class ballistic missiles.  China also agreed for the first time to put into place comprehensive export controls in the missile field.  In exchange for this, the U.S. agreed to waive some pending missile sanctions against China and to resume the licensing of satellite exports for launch in China.  

Despite this new agreement, evidence emerged that China was engaged in transfers inconsistent with the new agreement.  New sanctions were imposed in September 2001.  But in the summer and early fall of 2002, the Chinese promulgated comprehensive and quite professional export controls in the missile field, as well as upgraded controls in the chemical and biological field. And they also apparently took disciplinary action against the Chinese entity that was sanctioned for engaging in missile assistance to Pakistan.  But notwithstanding these new controls, we soon acquired new evidence that some Chinese firms were assisting Iran's chemical program and sanctions were imposed yet again. Earlier this year, CIA Director Tenet testified that Chinese firms may be backing away from the 1997 commitment by China not to assist Iran's nuclear program.  

So, the trend line over the past decade has been positive, but China's transformation from being part of the nonproliferation problem to being part of the nonproliferation solution has been far from complete. What accounts for this mixed record? 

On the positive side, China has increasingly internalized the view that preventing proliferation of WMD is in China's own national interest.  Chinese leaders have come to recognize that the proliferation of these capabilities, especially in their neighborhood, would undermine the stable international environment that China's leaders believe is in their interest at this stage in their development. 

Reinforcing China's interest in stability is China's interest in being seen as a major and responsible player that abides by the international rules.  This desire to be perceived as an upstanding world citizen is one reason why the Chinese react so strongly to the imposition of U.S. nonproliferation sanctions (even sanctions that have negligible, tangible effect) and why the threat of sanctions can often be used to leverage better Chinese behavior.

China's growing stake in nonproliferation, however, can be contradicted by other factors.  Some Chinese goals may at times take precedence over nonproliferation -- for example, its strategic relationship with Pakistan, its desire to avoid instability or regime change in North Korea, or its desire to demonstrate its opposition to a unipolar world. 

Another factor diluting China's commitment to non-proliferation is its tendency to see cooperation with the United States on proliferation issues as a function of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.  When those relations are good, China's cooperation can be forthcoming, but when those relations are bad, or in a state of decline, then its cooperation is much more difficult to achieve.  Thus, breakthroughs on nuclear cooperation with Iran came just before President Jiang's 1997 visit to Washington, and China's missile-related exports controls were announced before his visit to Crawford.  But the Begrade embassy bombing and certain U.S. arms sales to Taiwan were followed by dry spells in the nonproliferation area.