China’s Proliferation Problem (Page 2 of 3)

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.

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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.

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