Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 18

By Thomas Woodrow

China’s announcement in late August of a regime of export controls for missiles, missile-related items and technologies is a victory of sorts for U.S. diplomacy but likely will do little to stem continuing Chinese sales of such technologies. It also does nothing to repair the damage already wrought by massive sales of missile and nuclear weapon-related technologies over the past decade that turned Pakistan into a nuclear and missile-producing state. North Korea appears to be taking over much of the Chinese missile sales business. The danger exists that it, and, in the future Pakistan, could become proxies of Chinese technology sales, thereby taking much of the heat and the blame off Beijing.

Beijing’s decision to issue these export regulations ahead of Jiang Zemin’s upcoming fall visit to the United States probably has much to do with hopes of regaining market access to lucrative launches of U.S. satellites from Chinese Long March rockets. Washington banned Chinese launches of U.S. firms’ satellites after evidence was uncovered that Beijing was using technology assistance from U.S. firms to improve its long-range nuclear missile programs. The CSS-4 intercontinental ballistic missile, which currently is the only nuclear missile in the Chinese inventory that can target the continental United States, is an exact copy of some Long March space-launch vehicles, produced in the same factory by the same people. Thus, technical assistance rendered by U.S. firms in the 1990s to improve China’s civilian space launch capability directly translated into helping China improve its capability to target the United States with nuclear weapons. The improved longer-range version of the CSS-4, the CSS-4 Mod 2, which the Defense Department assesses is now operational and could be fitted to carry multiple warheads, is a likely beneficiary of this U.S. technical assistance to China’s civilian space program.

The notion that individual Chinese firms engage in large-scale exports of missile and nuclear technologies without the express consent of China’s senior leadership is, of course, nonsense. Nonetheless, the United States has officially accepted this fiction, and this is the reason why individual Chinese companies are selected for sanctions rather than China itself. The new Chinese regulations, perhaps unintentionally, do away with this fiction. Article 16 states that “where the exporter knows or should know that the missile-related items and technologies to be exported will be used by the receiving party directly in its program for developing missiles and other delivering systems listed in the Control List that can be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction, the export shall be subject to the provisions of these Regulations even if the items or technologies are not listed in the Control List.” In other words, all future exports of such technologies, even if not mentioned in the list of controlled items, must be approved by higher state authorities. Thus, by definition, any such exports would represent state rather than non-state sales. This provides ammunition for the United States, if it should so desire, to sanction China itself in the future event of weapons and technology sales.

Realistically, China has always conducted such sales for political reasons above all else, and will continue to export missile and nuclear technologies when it feels it is in its political interests to do so. Beijing has always tried to tie its own foreign missile sales to U.S. sales of military items to Taipei, attempting to get a quid pro quo from Washington. The Clinton administration flirted with this idea of halting sales to Taiwan. The current Bush administration, to its credit, has not. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated during his recent visit to Beijing that the United States neither supports nor, interestingly enough, opposes Taiwanese independence. Because this announcement came on the heels of China’s issuing its export controls, it represents a rare instance in which the United States has managed to hold its own when negotiating with the Chinese on their home turf.

Unfortunately, the current U.S. initiative to finally get tougher with China for its repeated violations of past promises not to sell missile technology is a case of too little too late. For the most part, the damage has already been done. Thanks to China, Pakistan is a nuclear state producing a range of missiles copied from Chinese designs in factories built with Chinese assistance. China continues to sell technologies to Iran and Syria. The danger that these Chinese-origin missile and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technologies could some day end up in the hands of al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations is very real. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Billingslea, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee in July, stated that “countries such as Iran and Syria continue to support terror groups such as Hamas, Hizballah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad … Some of the groups, like Hamas, are exploring ways to utilize WMD … Chinese firms continue to sell missile technology and dual-use materials to states of concern, which is enabling those nations to overcome developmental hurdles and to build more sophisticated longer-range missile systems.” Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddi Mahmoud, whom in press reports is described by the CIA as “Osama bin Laden’s nuclear secretary,” was reportedly involved in designing experiments to float an anthrax-laden helium balloon over the United States and attempts to build a nuclear bomb. He also evidently attempted to persuade dozens of other Chinese-trained Pakistani nuclear and chemical scientists and technicians to assist him in his efforts before he was arrested.

North Korea appears to have taken up much of the slack from China in the selling of missiles and missile technologies. This begs the question of where exactly North Korea got its own missile technology in the first place and how much Chinese assistance it received. A senior U.S. official recently accused North Korea of being “the world’s leading exporter of ballistic missile technology.” In late August, the Bush administration imposed sanctions on a North Korean company for Clinton-era sales of missile technology to Yemen. Yemen, you may recall, is where the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole took place, and where many of Osama bin Laden’s operatives originate. North Korea, in conducting these and other missile sales, may in fact be acting as a proxy for China. Pakistan–thanks to China a major producer of ballistic nuclear-capable missiles–could act in a similar capacity in the very near future.

Stronger U.S. efforts to get China to abide by technology-export promises made over decade ago, while laudable, appear to be a case of closing the barn door after most of the animals have escaped. Counterproliferation must now increasingly focus on dealing with those nations that have been on the receiving end of Chinese missile technology and missile production assistance, nations that are now capable of exporting on their own to a wide range of nongovernmental and terrorist organizations that even the Chinese refuse to directly sell to.

Thomas Woodrow was a senior China analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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