China comes in from the cold

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 February, 2004, 12:00am

China's links to the until-now secret underground nuclear networks of Libya and Pakistan have embarrassed Beijing, but experts predict the mainland's growing support for non-proliferation will limit damage to the country's reputation.

'China's proliferation behaviour has improved remarkably over the past 15 years,' says Phillip Saunders, a senior research professor at the National Defence University in Washington.

Dr Saunders says that while the mainland once transferred nuclear weapons technology and ballistic missiles to a range of countries, concerns today focus on the export of dual-use technology to a small number of buyers.

Jing-dong Yuan, a senior research associate in the East Asia Non-Proliferation Programme at the Monterey Institute's Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, says that since 2002 China has put in place export controls covering nuclear, chemical, and biological materials, ballistic missiles and conventional arms.

It has also recently applied for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and looks set to join the Missile Technology Control Regime soon.

In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, Evan Medeiros and Taylor Fravel, in an article entitled China's New Diplomacy, say that the 'scope, content and frequency of its export of sensitive weapons-related items has declined and diminished'.

They wrote: ''An expanding community of Chinese officials, scientists, military officers, and academics involved in arms control and non-proliferation research and policy-making has helped to sensitise senior leaders to the importance of these issues to the country's overall foreign policy and national identity.'

Dr Saunders says that one reason for the shift is that Beijing's attitude regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has changed as the country has become more powerful.

'WMD used to be seen as a legitimate way for developing countries to defend themselves against more powerful countries. Now they are seen as destabilising weapons that might threaten China's security and economic development,' says Dr Saunders.

Mainland officials are also keen to emphasise China's role as a 'responsible country,' and to 'counter notions of a future China threat'.

Dr Yuan says China has rethought the strategic costs and benefits of proliferation. 'China's move would serve both its political and strategic interests,' he says. 'It further improves China's image as a responsible power and it removes an irritation in Sino-US relations. The North Korean nuclear crisis and the Pakistani nuclear supply networks are but the most concrete examples.'

China's support for non-proliferation reduces the possibility that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan may obtain nuclear weapons in the future.

While some Chinese strategists previously thought that weapons transfers to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran boosted China's influence in the Middle East, the conventional wisdom now is that as the country becomes increasingly reliant on oil imports from the Middle East, instability or military conflicts have the potential to upset China's economic boom.

Analysts say that the mainland's export controls, unveiled in 2002, move China closer to meeting international export control standards.

'Interviews with officials responsible for enforcing the rules suggest they take their responsibilities seriously and that some Chinese companies have been penalised for export control violations,' says Dr Saunders.

Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, says China has been trying to exert greater control over weapons proliferation, pointing to tightened regulations in the chemical industry. However, it appears that the country's huge land area and volume of exports pose difficulties in controlling exports by domestic arms companies.

'China has traditionally had problems asserting central control over outlying regions,' says Dr Karniol. 'I think the United States implicitly recognises this, which is illustrated by [Washington's] imposing sanctions on individual companies rather than China.'

Evan Medeiros of the Rand Institute says China has been sincere in implementing export controls, especially after the September 11 attacks. 'The history of China's compliance with these laws is mixed,' says Dr Medeiros, 'but many of the problems are a result of genuine difficulties associated with implementing export controls in a large economy.

'The major problems have resulted from some of the lingering differences between the official government policy and the views of people in the People's Liberation Army and defence industries who have their own parochial interests in continued missile trade with Pakistan, Iran and other countries.'

Another problem for China's watchdogs is the rise in the export of dual-use technology.

'Unlike in the past, most of the concerns about China's proliferation behaviour focus on dual-use goods that can be used in WMD programmes, but that also have legitimate civilian applications,' says Dr Saunders. 'Effective controls require government officials to make tough judgments about how purchasers will actually use the goods.'

Two decades of economic reform, decentralisation and greater opening up mean a large number of companies may be involved in the production and trading of materials and technologies with dual-use application.

'Monitoring and controlling these companies would be a tremendous challenge,' says Dr Yuan. 'The US system has been there since the late 1940s and violations still takes place.'

Dr Medeiros agrees that even advanced economies of Europe and Asia have had many problems with controlling exports over the past 10 years.

Dr Yuan says issuing new regulations is one thing, but implementing them is quite another. 'This requires sufficient resources in terms of training of personnel, inter-agency co-ordination, customs inspections, and so on,' he says.

Dr Saunders says: 'My sense is that the new regulations should help stem the most questionable transfers, but may not address continuing transfers of missile technology to Pakistan. China has a long-standing strategic rationale for assistance to Pakistan, which is viewed as a way to counter India.'

China's most serious proliferation transfers have been to Pakistan, and include nuclear weapons design information and uranium in the early 1980s, and M-11 missiles in the early 1990s.

Despite strong pressure from Washington - and repeated sanctions - China has continued to provide technology for Pakistan's missile programmes. China claims that transfers are part of contracts signed before Beijing passed its new regulations.

Dr Saunders says embarrassing revelations that a Pakistani proliferation network transferred Chinese nuclear weapon designs to Libya and possibly other countries may force China to re-evaluate the strategic costs of continued support for Pakistan's missile programme.

He says Washington may be more successful in getting China to cut off assistance to Iran following recent reports of that country's nuclear activities. It seems likely, however, that China will continue to maintain ties with both Pakistan and Iran, including some defence-related trade with Pakistan.

'China may continue some missile-related assistance to Pakistan and Iran in the coming years,' says Dr Medeiros, adding that it will probably be dual-use technologies, but that it may taper off.

'China has already given so much to both that it's not clear that either Iran or Pakistan needs that much more from China.'

Dr Yuan says that in the post-9/11 era China has realised the costs of such assistance are higher than the benefits. 'In the case of South Asia, the costs are increasing because of China's efforts to improve relations with India as well as the general instability in Pakistan,' Dr Yuan says.

Beijing will be more cautious and careful with regard to nuclear and chemical-related trade that may have proliferation risks. He says once China becomes a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group it will have to request that Pakistan accept International Atomic Energy Agency full-scope safeguards.

'China recognised this restraint when it applied for Nuclear Supplies Group membership,' says Dr Yuan. 'That is a major step forward. We can only hope that China will continue to travel on the non-proliferation path and become part of the solution to WMD proliferation.'

Analysts predict more far-reaching foreign policy changes down the road. Dr Medeiros and Dr Fravel argue in Foreign Affairs that China is emerging as an active player in the international arena as a means of promoting its national interests.

The authors describe how China 'boldly stepped into the fray' to suspend crucial oil shipments to North Korea, send high-level envoys to Pyongyang and shift troops around the Sino-Korean border to push it to the negotiating table.

They argue that the Chinese foreign policy establishment has come to see China as an 'emerging great power with varied interests and responsibilities, and not as the victimised developing nation of the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras'.

'Mao had rejected the rules of the international system and sought to overthrow it, pursuing change through revolution instead,' they wrote, adding that Deng's transformation was only partial.

'When Mao was alive, China made most foreign policy decisions the way the Corleone family in The Godfather did: that is Mao made the final calls himself, with Zhou Enlai acting as his consigliere.''

They point to the growing public discussion of global affairs. 'Open debates on sensitive issues such as non-proliferation and missile defence were unheard of even 10 years ago. Today, pundits tackle all these issues in opinion pieces, TV talk shows, and books seeking to influence and shape China's diplomacy.'