The great wall against nuclear weapons

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 June, 2004, 12:00am

The Nuclear Suppliers Group, a multilateral export-control regime that manages the transfer of sensitive nuclear items and technology, approved China's membership last Friday during its annual plenary meeting in Sweden. The decision is an important milestone in the group's history, and China's membership is expected to further strengthen international nuclear non-proliferation efforts. That is, if Beijing can and will meet the obligations which are required of members.

Over the years, suspected Chinese nuclear proliferation activities have been a contentious issue in Sino-US relations. During the 1980s and 1990s, China was allegedly engaged in a number of questionable nuclear transactions, supposedly providing nuclear reactors and technology to Algeria, Pakistan and Iran without proper safeguards from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Since the mid-1990s, Beijing has made significant progress in its nuclear non-proliferation policy. After signing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992 and supporting its indefinite extension in 1995, Beijing has made formal pledges not to transfer nuclear items and technology to facilities which are not safeguarded and has issued a series of domestic regulations governing nuclear and nuclear dual-use exports.

Opposition to China's membership was based on a number of specific concerns. One is its continued nuclear co-operation with Pakistan, which refuses to sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state. The Nuclear Suppliers Group stipulates that members must not make nuclear exports to countries that do not have full safeguards with the IAEA. Beijing and Islamabad have recently signed an agreement for China to provide Pakistan with a second nuclear reactor, to be built at Chashma, about 175km southwest of the capital.

In addition, critics point out that China's track record raises serious doubts about its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. For instance, after China joined the NPT, companies continued to engage in transfers of sensitive nuclear technology that could be used in developing nuclear weapons. In 1995, China sold to Pakistan 5,000 ring magnets that could be used to enrich uranium, a clear violation of its non-proliferation commitment.

These are all legitimate concerns. But an equally important point is to recognise and encourage the generally positive trends in Chinese non-proliferation behaviour. The September 11 terrorist attacks, coupled with the revelations concerning North Korea's nuclear programmes and the international nuclear proliferation network, have changed perceptions regarding the Chinese threat. They have also raised Beijing's awareness of the dangers nuclear proliferation could pose to its own security interests. Indeed, in the summer of 2002, the Chinese leadership made the decision to adopt as a top item on its policy agenda the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

With China's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group comes new responsibilities. If past experience is of any relevance, building an effective domestic export control system takes time, political commitment and resources.

It is true that China's export control system is far from perfect. But that makes it vital for countries with more developed systems (such as the United States and Japan) to help China develop infrastructure and train personnel. China's membership could open the way for it to become a member of other multilateral export control regimes, which will be a major contribution to international non-proliferation efforts.

Yuan Jingdong is director of research for the East Asia Non-proliferation Programme in the Centre for Non-proliferation Studies, at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California