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.

A third factor diluting China's commitment to nonproliferation is that, even when Beijing has wanted to restrain its exports, its ability to control exports -- at least until recently -- has been limited, especially in the area of dual-use goods and technologies. Many Chinese firms that engage in potentially sensitive trade are spin-offs from state-owned enterprises and no longer operate under the direct supervision of central authorities.  Beijing now has the tools in place to control exports, at least on paper.  A key problem now is enforcement.  U.S. Government officials tell me that China has not yet adopted an active, conscientious approach toward enforcement.

So, what's the situation today and what's the outlook for the future?  The good news, I guess, is that nonproliferation is not a major irritant between the U.S. and China.  The bilateral relationship has become better and broader, with cooperation in such areas as counter-terrorism diminishing the significance of remaining nonproliferation concerns.  Also, China is making slow but steady progress getting an effective export control system up and running. 

But the bad news is that we're still seeing problematic transfers.  Some are cases where Chinese entities appear to be acting without the knowledge or approval of Chinese authorities.  But others involve Beijing having effective control but opting not to exercise restraint. 

The danger for the future is that the positive trend line will go flat or even become negative.  One reason for this, in my view, is that the U.S. Government has departed from some of the practices that kept the trend line positive through the 1990s.  That period was characterized by intentious, and often contentious, bilateral engagement on nonproliferation issues.  When we had intelligence of troublesome transactions, we would raise the matter with the Chinese, press them to stop the transfer, threaten and sometimes impose sanctions, and offer to end or waive sanctions in return for improved Chinese performance.  We met frequently, at both expert and senior levels.  There was a lot of pain in those interactions, but also a lot of gain. 

The current approach is very different.  Meetings are infrequent, and usually they are dominated by issues other than proliferation, such as Iraq and North Korea.  Only rarely do we share intelligence information with Chinese authorities about transactions of concern.  Partially this is due to a concern about not compromising intelligence sources and methods.  But it is also the result of doubts that the Chinese authorities would use the information to put a halt to the transfers.  Sanctions are still used, but they are usually simply imposed rather than used as a vehicle for trying to leverage better behavior.  The U.S. should not conduct its policy toward China through the Federal Register (where announcements of the imposition of sanction are made). 

There seems to be no real strategy today to try to promote continued improvement in China's nonproliferation record.  And the Chinese probably see few incentives for taking controls more seriously.  On the one hand, they see that relations can go well even if they continue to tolerate questionable exports.  On the other, they have a sense that they will be sanctioned almost regardless of how much effort they make to clean up their act. 

If we want the trend line to continue positive, we will have to return to a more engaged approach to the problem.

Robert J. Einhorn is Senior Adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (  Most recently, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation in the Clinton administration.