The November 15 virtual summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping produced no breakthroughs, but clearly both Washington and Beijing are acutely aware of the risk of an incident that could spiral out of control. Both Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stressed the need to avoid a new Cold War mindset, but the vast disparity in nuclear stockpiles between the two countries and Chinese skepticism will likely keep traditional arms control steps such as bilateral warhead reductions or caps off the table for now.
Engaging China in talks to begin an accession process for the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) could, however, prove a useful entry point into broader arms control talks. China is not an MTCR partner but agreed in 1992 to adhere to MTCR guidelines, although it is questionable if Beijing has followed through.
As opposed to observations that Washington and Beijing are engaged in a zero-sum game, proliferation is a policy concern for both states. Past notions of including Beijing in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty were never taken seriously because the treaty simply does not allow for participation beyond the United States and Russia. However, the necessity of engaging Beijing remains. Arms control dialogues are a forum in which to air disagreements and can evolve to match the strategic situation. A new series of dialogues is needed with China, and ideally, one meeting could snowball into the next.
Multilateral Export Control Regimes
China claims it is ready to accept greater global responsibility and curbing the proliferation of sensitive technology provides a good test case. From the 1980s to 2000s, China joined many nuclear safety institutions – for example, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the Convention on Nuclear Safety – but it is still outside some multilateral export control initiatives related to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Engaging China on proliferation prevention initiatives can strengthen the barrier against the misuse of WMDs and their delivery systems.
The major four non-proliferation regimes are: the Nuclear Suppliers Group; the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies; the Australia Group controlling dual-use chemical manufacturing and biological equipment, chemical weapons precursors, and biological agents; and the MTCR, which controls the export of missiles capable of delivering nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, i.e. WMDs.
China was approved as a participating government of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004, but adherence to one regime is only a starting point. The four regimes together cover a spectrum of goods and technology that could support prohibited WMD and missile programs. Integrating China into the remaining export control initiatives may further the goal of universal adherence to these regimes; however, China argues the Australia Group is “incompatible” with the Chemical Weapons Convention and for now, the Wassenaar Arrangement is likely a bridge too far given China’s lucrative trade in weapons to developing countries. The place to start is with the MTCR.
However, an immediate obstacle is that decisions on membership require a consensus from the 35 other voluntary members. Following negotiations with the United States through the late 1990s, in November 2000 China pledged not to assist “in any way, any country in the development of ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons.” China was subsequently barred from full MTCR membership in 2004 because its export controls were not compliant with the regime’s standards. However, just in the last year, China has strengthened its national export control system and engaged with the regime by restarting a dialogue with New Zealand, then the chair of the MTCR.
Engagement Is Needed to Strengthen International Security
In the past, China has provided regime-violating ballistic missiles to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and allegedly provided significant technical assistance to Iran and North Korea. More recently, China has sold regime-violating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Chinese-origin missiles have made their way to rebel groups fighting in Yemen and Syria. While China’s record is likely to remain a source of concern, admitting China to the MTCR, should it demonstrate compliance, would enable all five nuclear weapon states theoretically to coordinate their export control policies with other MTCR members. As the nuclear weapon states have the most advanced delivery vehicle technology, further controlling the spread of this technology would be a huge win for the nonproliferation regime.
The other argument against Chinese membership is that irresponsible Chinese behavior, should it continue, could actually weaken the regime, as has been the case with some Russian exports. China could also use the MTCR to attack U.S. exports in support of allies such as South Korea. Overall, these concerns can be mitigated through parallel dialogues, and the advantages of Chinese participation could outweigh these drawbacks.
Within the regime, missiles and their components are divided into two categories, with most control efforts focusing on missiles whose ability to carry nuclear weapons is not in dispute, and fewer efforts focusing on shorter-range missile systems and propulsion and launch components. Members agree to exercise a “strong presumption of denial” regarding transfers of complete missiles and other unmanned delivery systems capable of carrying a payload of 500 kilograms to a range of at least 300 kilometers. Yet there remain disputes and uncertainties over the sales of UAVs. While UAVs can be used in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, some types of UAVs could be converted into cruise missiles with an ability to deliver WMDs.
A Trump administration proposal sought to relax the MTCR’s export guidelines for UAVs and introduce a maximum speed limit to create a definition of which would be WMD capable. China and the UAE are exporting MTCR-violating drones and Israel is considering doing so. Failure to engage China on this issue could further weaken the MTCR, which, unlike chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, does not have a treaty establishing a norm against proliferation.
Why Would China Join?
Recently, China has taken a series of progressive steps to enhance its non-proliferation policy by signing the Arms Trade Treaty and strengthening its export control policy. It is likely that these measures have been motivated as much by a desire to get access to advanced technologies as by a desire to be a good global citizen. Most Western states maintain embargoes on providing military goods and technologies to China out of concerns over Beijing’s human rights record. Shoring up China’s image as a supporter of multilateral initiatives could burnish its international standing when the costs of admission are low. However, China’s main motivation would likely remain access to information and technologies that could have implications for China’s space program.
The United States has a long-running concern about China’s abuse of intellectual property rights, which would require careful negotiation of the terms of admittance to the regime. Yet, this is the point of engaging in an arms control dialogue with strategic competitors. Such a dialogue could bring significant non-proliferation benefits by increasing transparency about China’s policies and capabilities, including where the civilian and military arms of China’s space program interact and how the decision-making process works. Further, this could provide an opportunity for China to demonstrate that it is serious about upholding international standards while allaying concerns over its past behavior.
Just as the United States and the Soviet Union collaborated to establish the London Group of nuclear exporters, which eventually became the Nuclear Suppliers Group, so too can the United States and China find common ground amid periods of intense bilateral rivalry. Engagement on the MTCR could offer a low-cost opportunity to strengthen international security by limiting the number and types of missiles and associated technology proliferated around the world.
The United States should revisit whether this is an avenue that could jump start a running dialogue on non-proliferation issues that could eventually rise to arms control and actual reductions in nuclear weapons. China’s record on proliferation has not been good in the past. Were it to adhere to the MTCR, and eventually the other regimes, and provide a record of good non-proliferation behavior, China would take a small, but important, step on the road to minimizing risks of catastrophic conflict while validating the primacy of dialogue over confrontation.