China’s Proliferation Problem
Image Credit: Surian Soosay

China’s Proliferation Problem


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.

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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.  

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