Mon, Feb 23, 2004 - Page 9 News List

China moves toward responsibility in weapons proliferation

Reports of Beijing's involvement in nuclear programs in other countries have highlighted Chinese proliferation -- but a change of heart was already under way

By John Ruwitch  /  REUTERS , BEIJING

Just last year, Washington slapped sanctions on several Chinese companies saying they had exported restricted products.

"That implicitly recognizes that the Chinese government doesn't bear full responsibility," he said.

China's defense industry, long known as a source of cheap, low-quality weapons, has been streamlined in recent years to produce higher-tech arms to serve a leaner, more modern military, and has focused increasingly on producing civilian products.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War, China's arms sales have dropped to around US$300 to US$500 million a year from a peak of about US$1 billtion to US$1.5 billion, some analysts say.

The Congressional Research Service said the US ranked first in arms transfer agreements in 2001, making nearly US$12.1 billion worth of sales for 45.8 percent of all deals globally.

China has 11 main state-owned conglomerates, including China North Industries Group Corp, which the US sanctioned last year for selling sensitive arms products to Iran. AviChina, the civil unit of another Chinese defense firm, China Aviation Industry Group II, is listed in Hong Kong.

The army is involved in weapons design and procurement, but has no stake in the civilian firms that produce the arms and sell them abroad.

Overlaps persist, with China seeing missile assistance to Pakistan and Iran, for instance, as an important way to retain influence in South Asia and build relations in the oil-rich Middle East, analysts said.

It is not inconceivable that Beijing, host of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear crisis next week, may be indirectly responsible for supplying Pyongyang with its atomic know-how.

Also involved may be the father of Pakistan's atomic weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who confessed recently that he sold nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

"What Chinese policymakers seem to forget is that they may be facilitating secondary proliferation," Medeiros said.

"The scope of the problem with China has changed and narrowed," he said. "But there is still a problem."

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