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

Mon, Feb 23, 2004 - Page 9

China's murky role as an arms salesman has entered US crosshairs, but defense analysts say Beijing's shift toward a more responsible policy on the spread of weapons of mass destruction will limit any damage.

This week, reports emerged in Washington implicating Beijing in Libyan and Pakistani nuclear bomb programs as well as a Saudi missile program.

But Beijing's response has been notably muted, highlighting a slow but significant shift to be seen as a responsible and leading member of the international community, matching its burgeoning economic might.

"China's attitude toward proliferation in the last 15 years has changed remarkably," said Evan Medeiros, a Rand Corp expert on China's arms industry and military.

"Without a doubt, their views have evolved, and evolved in the direction of international practices."

At the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday, a spokeswoman said a Washington Post report that atomic bomb designs found in Libya originated in China was a source of concern and Beijing was investigating.

She also simply declined to comment on a Reuters report that US officials think China is still helping Pakistan with nuclear weapons and missile development and Saudi Arabia with missiles.

Not long ago, China watchers said they would have expected a bristly denial of any notion of Chinese involvement.

China has joined a number of non-proliferation regimes in the past decade. In the past two years alone, it has churned out several sets of new export control rules to check the sales of products that can be used in chemical weapons and materials that can be used in ballistic missiles.

The main reason for the shift is a desire to improve China's global standing as its economy integrates more closely with the rest of the world's.

"They are taking a much more active stance in non-proliferation efforts. Part of it is that they want to become a much bigger player on the international stage," said a Europe-based expert on Chinese military policy.

"It is in their interests to beef up their non-proliferation credentials."

Still, the fresh allegations did not surprise experts who have long believed China helped Pakistan to become a nuclear power and may even have given Islamabad detailed weapons designs.

The Post's report said the Chinese weapons plans were old and had arrived in Libya via Pakistan. China also was known to have helped with Saudi Arabia's missile program.

China has tried to strengthen its non-proliferation regime, in what Medeiros described as "a gradual, grudging, continued converging between China and the US."

But constraints remain.

One key factor is Beijing's limited ability to track what Chinese companies are exporting.

China lacks monitors, said defense expert Li Bin of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"I think we need more personnel in the government and in companies and research institutes," he said.

"If we had more people working on this, we could do it more clearly. If you don't have people to enforce the legal structure, it doesn't matter how good that structure is."

Beijing's reach is limited in a land the size of China.

"China has always had a problem in exercising central control over regional authorities in this area as in other areas, and the US has essentially recognized that," said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's defense Weekly.

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."