China’s Proliferation Problem

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China’s Proliferation Problem

Are economics trumping non-proliferation concerns for Chinese officials dealing with Iran and North Korea? A new UN report suggests maybe.

A UN panel of experts has found evidence that North Korea has been clandestinely assisting other countries, including Iran, in developing nuclear and ballistic capabilities. What’s really interesting though is the country illicit goods have reportedly been trafficked through—China.

Of course, we can’t actually read the report ourselves because the Chinese government is blocking its release—despite an obligation to allow the UN technical experts to operate without political interference. But while Beijing could certainly take a step toward promoting more transparency over security by allowing everyone official access to the document, far more important is getting Chinese entities out of the proliferation business altogether.

As one of the world’s largest economies—and as a key export and trans-shipment hub—China will play a vital role, for better or worse, in maintaining the international non-proliferation regimes. After all, the country is a necessary participant in any efforts to prevent black market sales of technologies and materials that can be used to make weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government continues to pursue policies that complicate US initiatives to curtail the spread of WMD to countries of concern, as well as to non-state actors such as terrorist groups. Critics note, for example, that China adopts weak export controls, doesn’t even fully enforce those measures it has formally adopted, and undermines the spirit (if not the letter) of transfer limitations by accepting at face value recipients’ claims that they won’t employ imported dual-use items for military purposes.

The UN sanctions looked at in the latest report prohibit governments or individuals from assisting either Iran or North Korea in transferring or receive WMD-related technology, including ballistic missiles. This means that if China is helping these two rogues exchange items, it is engaging in a double violation of multiple UN resolutions that its government has itself supported in the UN Security Council.

According to leaked excerpts from the text, ‘Prohibited ballistic missile-related items are suspected to have been transferred between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran on regular scheduled flights of Air Koryo and Iran Air…with trans-shipment through a neighbouring third country.’ In addition to Iran, the panel found that North Korea had succeeded in selling ‘complete systems, components and technology to numerous customers in the Middle East and South Asia.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue ‘completely’ denied that the two countries had exchanged goods through Chinese territory. ‘On the issue of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, the Chinese position is crystal clear,’ Hu told the media. ‘We have nothing to hide.’ Russian officials, who like their Chinese counterparts often block the release of UN reports critical of friendly governments, also stated that they had no evidence of WMD-related exchanges between Iran and North Korea.  

This certainly isn’t the view in the United States. WikiLeaks cables show that US officials have for years worried that North Korea was providing Iran with technology that was accelerating Tehran’s missile development programme. Syria and China’s close ally Pakistan are also thought to have received missile and other WMD-related technologies from North Korea, which has made the most progress among the proliferation rogues in developing these products.

The latest revelations, though unsurprising, are also doubly unfortunate. First, past exposures of Chinese entities’ involvement in WMD-related proliferation complicated efforts during the Clinton and both Bush administrations to expand Sino-American scientific and technical collaboration. The new evidence of complicity or at least negligence in WMD-related transfers also threatens to impede Sino-American cooperation in outer space, nuclear energy, and other high-technology areas.

Second, although disputes and concerns remain in certain areas, China’s general record regarding the proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery had improved in recent years, compared with the 1980s and 1990s, when Beijing had a habit of transferring proliferation-sensitive technologies and materials that recipient countries such as Pakistan could use to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Chinese officials have since become more eager to show Washington and other governments that China is a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in promoting regional and global security by actively opposing WMD proliferation. To show its determination, China has joined a number of non-proliferation treaties and institutions and has adopted an expanding range of export controls limiting the sale of technologies that could potentially contribute to nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons proliferation.

With these advances in mind, some Chinese analysts consider US professions of concern over Beijing’s proliferation policies as insincere, hypocritical, and an excuse to discredit China. Unfortunately, the record suggests that Beijing has become more supportive of US non-proliferation goals mainly to assuage Washington’s criticisms, rather than because of any newfound commitment to non-proliferation standards.  

Most Sino-US disputes in this area relate to China’s export of ambiguous goods and technologies rather than the sale of items clearly intended for military purposes. Certainly, China is still one of the world’s largest providers of sensitive, ‘dual-use’ technologies and materials. And although Chinese exporters describe these sales as designed for peaceful commercial purposes, US officials fear they might help the recipient country make weapons.

The reality is that the greatest obstacle to major improvements in China’s non-proliferation record is often a domestic cost-benefit analysis in which the US government can exert little influence. Most remaining proliferation disputes don’t pertain to the actions of the government in Beijing, but to the practices of China’s state-owned defence industries. The country’s large state-owned enterprises (SEOs) are some of the world’s most prolific exporters of weapons and dual-use technologies. Yet, although the Chinese government might not directly approve these transactions, the existence of such ‘serial proliferators’ suggests that Chinese officials lack the capacity or the will (or both) to control their activities.

Of course, the Chinese government has an interest in preventing the proliferation of WMD-related items that might be traced to China and damage its reputation. But its higher priority is promoting domestic economic growth, and the sale of weapons systems, military technologies, and sensitive dual-use materials are a profitable business for many influential actors in China.

Even if it doesn’t see the public light of day, the latest UN report should still spur international efforts to bring China into the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a voluntary international coalition that cooperates to curtail the illicit transfer of WMD, their means of delivery, and related technologies and materials.

China, for its part, has expressed concerns that the initiative may violate international law and national sovereignty. But the resulting non-participation is problematic since neighbouring North Korea has always been a primary, if unadvertised, target of the endeavour. Beijing exercises more influence in Pyongyang than perhaps any other foreign government, yet Chinese analyst Xu Guangyu probably reflected his government’s opinion regarding PSI when he observed: ‘We don't want to see actions that could escalate tensions or spark confrontation. It wouldn't serve China’s interests to become closely involved.’

But it’s not all gloomy on the nuclear co-operation front. China has, for example, become a strong supporter of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President George W. Bush launched the programme on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in 2006, and it rapidly gained the support of the other G-8 members as well as dozens of other important countries, including China. Not only did the Chinese government decide to join the GICNT at its founding plenary meeting in Rabat in October 2006, but Beijing also assumed a position on its Implementation and Assessment Group (IAG), which serves as the Initiative’s leadership body.

There could be a good reason for this enthusiasm. On the issue of curbing nuclear proliferation and WMD terrorism—arguably the most important US security concern right now—the record suggests that Chinese officials tend to be more supportive of security institutions in which China played an early leading role in their development, giving Beijing considerable influence in setting their rules. For example, China’s extensive engagement with the GICNT likely results from its being a joint Russian-US initiative that rapidly gained G-8 support. In contrast, the PSI is more clearly an American-origin enterprise that continues to reflect Washington’s security priorities.

Whatever the reason for Beijing’s support, maintaining China’s involvement with the GICNT is especially important since China doesn’t participate in the Russian-American strategic arms control process or US threat reduction programmes involving the former Soviet republics. In addition, the initiative might just offer a way of implementing of a key US commission’s recommendation that Washington and Moscow extend their bilateral collaboration over WMD proliferation and terrorism in South Asia to include China.

It’s just a start, but it could be a useful step in bringing the three closer together in dealing with one of the region’s most pressing problems.