Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 24

By Thomas Woodrow

The transfer and sale of Chinese-origin nuclear weapons and missile technologies has started a spiraling cycle of proliferation with grave consequences for security in South and East Asia. Beijing has made nuclear and missile transfers directly and indirectly through proxy states such as Pakistan and North Korea, disseminating through them to other nations including Syria, Iran and Libya. This Chinese-led proliferation has kick-started a nuclear arms race involving India, Pakistan and North Korea. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan will soon join in, to be inevitably followed by Iran, Syria and others. China’s direct and indirect assistance to North Korea is especially worrying, as Pyongyang is designing an intercontinental-range ballistic missile with a nuclear mission to target the United States.

In October 2002, North Korea revealed that it was continuing to secretly develop nuclear weapons despite promising not to do so as part of its 1994 agreement with the United States. The nuclear weapons technology involved–including large numbers of centrifuge machines to produce weapons-grade uranium–has its origins in Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear programs. It seems most unlikely that Islamabad would have passed on Chinese-origin nuclear technology in such quantities to North Korea without Beijing’s knowledge and consent. Chinese technicians working in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile facilities would have notified Beijing in any event.

China has long historical links with North Korea’s missile programs. The Chinese themselves have typified their relationship with North Korea as “closer than gums and teeth.” In the 1970s, North Korea received Chinese missile technology of Soviet design. This assistance was furthered by the joint development of the Chinese DF-61, a 1,000 km-range nuclear missile that was to be turned over to Pyongyang. Although this program ended in 1978 when its Chinese sponsor fell from favor, by that time North Korea had acquired valuable design assistance from the Chinese. This assistance helped Pyongyang reverse-engineer a version of the Scud missile it had purchased from Egypt in 1976. North Korea arranged for Iranian funding of its indigenous Scud B missile program in the mid-1980s; these links with Tehran have continued to the present day. North Korea also served as a conduit for Chinese transfers of Silkworm anti-ship missiles to Iran in the late 1980s to avoid U.S. censure of Beijing. One 1988 transfer reportedly included eighty Chinese Silkworms and forty North Korean Scud-Bs as part of the same shipment.

Although Beijing has stepped up its political and economic relations with South Korea, there is evidence of ongoing military cooperation with North Korean missile and nuclear programs. In 1997, a “joint team” of Chinese and North Korean technicians was reportedly sent to Iran to assist in Tehran’s ballistic missile efforts. The Iranian Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 missiles are direct beneficiaries of North Korean and Chinese missile programs. North Korea likely has used the Iranian missile tests for its own missile program development to circumvent Pyongyang’s “promise” not to conduct missile launches (the Shahab-3 is the No Dong; the planned Shahab-5 is the Taepodong-2).

There is other evidence of Chinese assistance to North Korean missile programs. A 1993 test launch of the 1,000-km range No Dong missile from North Korea evidently involved no telemetry, reportedly a signature of some Chinese missile tests. In 1994, a missile mockup of the long-range Taepodong-2 appeared to resemble the Chinese CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile. A 1995 press report claimed that some U.S. intelligence officials believed China was both assisting North Korea to develop a family of long-range ballistic missiles and training some 200 Korean missile engineers in China. That family of long-range missiles is, of course, the Taepodong, which Pyongyang successfully launched in August 1998–ten years before the CIA believed possible–on a trajectory that carried it over Japan to impact near the Hawaiian Islands. The miniaturization of a nuclear package, advanced guidance components and stage separation mechanisms are critical to North Korea’s efforts to develop a nuclear-capable Taepodong-class missile with a range to target the United States. These are the areas where Chinese assistance is likely occurring, possibly under the guise of satellite-launch assistance.

Beijing’s willingness to sell and transfer critical components of WMD technology makes China directly or indirectly a key component of the global proliferation of nuclear and missile technology. While Beijing may have had its political reasons for assisting Pakistan and North Korea, in doing so it has opened the Pandora’s box of a regional nuclear arms race. The Indian Defense Ministry has publicly stated it sees China as India’s primary strategic threat; New Delhi is designing its longer-range Agni missiles specifically for nuclear deterrence of China. Faced with ongoing North Korean and Chinese nuclear and missile efforts, Japan will undoubtedly activate its own nascent nuclear weapons program and start to devote some of its launches from Kagashima for military purposes. South Korea already has a half-hidden missile program underway. Taiwan developed medium-range missiles in the 1980s and was well on its way towards a nuclear capability when the United States pressured it to stop some twenty years ago. Taipei, too, likely will rethink its need for a nuclear deterrent. The nuclear race is also spreading to Iran, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia may be funding much of Pakistan’s missile and nuclear efforts and could become a nuclear power literally overnight through an airlift of missiles.

Why has China continued to proliferate in the face of such obviously negative consequences? By spreading WMD technology throughout Asia, Beijing is only helping to create the regional instability it claims it wants to avoid, and is fulfilling its own paranoia of encirclement as Asia becomes increasingly wary of Beijing’s willingness to throw its economic and military weight around. China’s mistakes can be partly attributed to simple Han hubris, especially in its relations with India, which Beijing regards as an inferior culture. Mostly, however, it is political blundering, spurred on by shortsighted greed, which has led China to start an arms race it did not want. China armed Pakistan to the nuclear teeth without considering the Indian response. It assisted North Korea, either directly or indirectly, seemingly without concern that this might cause Japan to rethink its nuclear option and more fully embrace the U.S. NMD initiative. Perhaps Beijing plans to use Pyongyang as a lever against Washington in the event of a decision to launch an attack against Taipei. In any event, China’s rampant proliferation of WMD has created an arms race that cannot now be stopped. Beijing will soon reap the rewards of its ill-considered policies as India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan accelerate or reactivate indigenous missile and nuclear weapons programs.

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