Center for American Progress

China’s Proliferation Policies and Practices: Testimony of Joseph Cirincione
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China’s Proliferation Policies and Practices: Testimony of Joseph Cirincione

Senior CAP Fellow Joseph Cirincione testifies on China's proliferation and the impact of trade policy on defense industries in the U.S. and China.

The following is an excerpt of Joseph Cirincione’s testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission at a hearing titled "China’s Proliferation and the Impact of Trade Policy on Defense Industries in the United States and China." Cirincione is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress.

China is a recognized nuclear weapon state under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and possesses enough nuclear material for hundreds of nuclear weapons.  China has approximately 200 nuclear weapons on various delivery platforms, mostly short- and medium-range missiles.  Approximately 20 Chinese weapons are deployed on missiles that can reach the continental United States. Starting in the 1960s, China became a major supplier of sensitive nuclear and missile technology to the developing world.  

The United States and other countries have worked to draw China step-by-step into the international nonproliferation regime.  Over three decades, these efforts have achieved important progress.  Technology transfer issues exist, but they are now a relatively minor aspect of the United States–China relationship, comparable to issues that we have with allied nations whose companies engage in nuclear black market sales.

China is of particular nonproliferation importance in two ways.  As a nuclear weapon state, it has a large nuclear weapons and material production complex.  These weapons and materials are of concern to its neighbors, to the United States, and other potential adversaries.  Questions about the security and accountability of the weapons and materials are particularly important.  China, however, has also been a major supplier of nuclear technology and equipment in the developing world, and its past behavior in the nuclear and missile fields was a significant nonproliferation concern.

Following its first nuclear test in 1964, China began a slow but steady process of developing a full-fledged nuclear weapons infrastructure and strategic and tactical nuclear arsenal.   Having been isolated by the West after the Communist revolution in 1949, China was also isolated from the evolving international framework of peaceful uses of nuclear energy and from the collaboration that produced the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the 1950s, the NPT in the late 1960s, and the development of nuclear export control guidelines in the 1970s.  As a Communist power during the Cold War, China was also excluded from the establishment of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which originated in 1987 as a Western arrangement to exchange information on and restrain the exports of nuclear-capable missiles and related technology.

In the early years, the People’s Republic of China adopted a posture that rhetorically
favored nuclear weapons proliferation, particularly in the developing world, where this theme once had some appeal as a rallying point for anti-imperialism.   Through the 1970s, China’s policy was not to oppose nuclear proliferation, which it still saw as limiting U.S. and Soviet power.  After China began to open to the West in the 1970s, its rhetorical position gradually shifted to one that opposes nuclear proliferation.

China’s practical approach to the export of nuclear and military goods did not, however, conform to the standards of the international nonproliferation regime.  Despite China’s de facto commitments in 1992, 1994, and 1998 to uphold the nonproliferation regulations of the MTCR, Chinese state-owned corporations continued to engage in illicit nuclear arms transfers to Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Libya.   Major efforts have been made over the past 25 years to persuade China to modify its approach formally, bringing it into closer
alignment with the policies of the other nuclear supplier states.  These efforts have produced demonstrable results, evident in China’s accession to the Zangger Committee in October 1997 and to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in May 2004 and in greatly reduced technology transfers.  China has also signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, banning the development or stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons.  In October 2004, at their meeting in Seoul, the thirty-four members of the MTCR rejected China’s bid to become a member, apparently over China’s failure to meet fully their nonproliferation standards. Many experts believe that China’s entry into the MTCR could deter it from proliferating its nuclear-related materials to countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.   A domestic export control system has developed with constant U.S. encouragement, but it is still a work in progress and has not yet become completely effective.

China plays a central role in both the North Korean and Iranian proliferation crises.  The United States believes that ending North Korea’s nuclear program depends heavily on China’s ability to pressure Pyongyang.  The U.S. Department of State’s former director for policy planning, Mitchell Reiss, has characterized China as the “mediator” between North Korea and the U.S. in discussions.  China has, he said, “the most influence on the North. And so to get [it] on board . . . gives us much more weight in these negotiations.”   During an April 2004 visit to China, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke approvingly of China’s increased commitment to the nonproliferation regime, while urging it to make economic assistance to North Korea conditional on Pyongyang’s cooperation in the six-party talks designed to end its nuclear activities.   China played a major and positive role in convincing the North Korea leadership to suspend further tests after its October 2007 nuclear weapon test and to return to the Six Party Talks.  China appears committed to ending North Korea’s nuclear program, both for its own strategic purposes and to demonstrate the positive aspects of what China refers to as its peaceful rise to great-power status.

China’s relationship with Iran has become a greater concern as China’s economic relationship with that country grows.  In November 2004, China signed oil and gas contracts with Iran worth an estimated $100 to $200 billion.  (China has also signed oil deals with Brazil, Angola, and Sudan because its booming economy has stimulated a huge and growing need for natural resources.)   Nonetheless China has cooperated in passing two UN Security Council resolutions condemning Iran’s failure to comply with its nonproliferation obligations under the NPT and has supported the limited sanctions enacted by those resolutions.

China is not looking for a confrontation with the United States over Iran, but neither does it want U.S. actions to increase instability in areas vital to its economic development. It sees Iran and North Korea not as threats that must be confronted but as problems that can be managed through flexible and patient diplomacy.

Download the full testimony here.

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