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.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.