Last week, reports surfaced that Japan has evidence that a Chinese enterprise shipped vehicles capable of transporting and launching long-range missiles to North Korea. Such a move would likely violate U.N. sanctions.
The story itself isn’t new – The Diplomat among others reported on the possibility a few months back. What makes the story noteworthy is that what was exported – a transport erector launcher or TEL – has some special capabilities. As Bloomberg noted when the reports surfaced: “They are a concern because they could give the North the ability to transport long-range missiles around its territory, making them harder to locate and destroy.”
It’s worth noting at this point that North Korea isn’t currently believed to have any long range ballistic missiles to place on such a platform for launch. Indeed, the world was treated to a ringside view of its recent missile test failure. But however embarrassing that failure, if North Korea is able to continue to develop its missile capabilities and miniaturize them enough to fit on the platform, then this would be seen as extremely troubling for the West. Couple this with nuclear weapons, and the problems clearly multiply.
Troubling as all this is, though, the big question is whether China’s transfer of technology was an “accident,” specifically a case of a corporation simply doing what corporations do, or whether this move reflected state policy. Could this really be just a simple case of a company looking to make a buck?
This seems to make the most sense looking at all possibilities. Certainly, it seems possible a company may have taken a chance on selling such technology, counting on the fact that they weren’t selling missiles, just the transportation device to make them mobile. They may have believed this lowered the chances of being caught out (although any hope of this was banished when the North Koreans decided to parade the TEL around their capital)
Reported stories that the vehicles were sold and “used to carry lumber” are comical to say the least. But how about the most controversial idea: that the sale reflected state policy? On this, I’d have to say it’s unlikely. Earlier this month I had a chance to attend Track 2.0 dialogues involving both retired and current U.S and Chinese officials, as well as academics and military officials. Under the Chatham House rules of the conference I’m not able to report on the specifics, but although there’s clearly a great deal of mistrust on both sides, neither side wants to rock the boat. There seem to be clear red lines neither side are generally going to be willing to cross, and China’s political leaders, as well as members of the PLA, surely have a very strong understanding of U.S. concerns with regard to North Korea. As a result, the desire to ease tensions would likely trump any perceived advantage in such a move.
I would argue that there is reason to doubt Chinese intentions in other areas of dispute, but at least as far as the TEL controversy goes, there seems to be smoke without fire.
Harry Kazianis is assistant editor of The Diplomat.