Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 6

By David G. Wiencek

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, China’s statements on its readiness to support the United States and the emerging international coalition in the urgent fight against global terrorism have been mixed and accompanied by caveats. On a September 21 visit to Washington, for example, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan pledged to share intelligence information on terrorism. Days earlier, however, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing sought to link cooperation with a reciprocal U.S. pledge to support Chinese efforts in their own internal conflict situations in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

In a country the size of China there will naturally be different voices offering different analyses and policy solutions. Yet the rhetoric to date, both official and unofficial, does not inspire confidence that Beijing will actively side with and positively support the American-led counterterrorism war.


This skepticism is reinforced by China’s record on nonproliferation. Here too Beijing has offered pledges of support, which have been later cast aside in pursuit of other geopolitical objectives and/or pure commercial considerations.

Chinese activity regarding missile transfers is particularly problematic. Throughout the 1990s, the United States repeatedly sought to gain Chinese adherence to the principles embodied in the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) or even to have China become a signatory to this agreement. (The MTCR is a voluntary arrangement among thirty-three nations that attempts to curb proliferation of missiles capable of delivering Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). In the main, it focuses on controlling ballistic and cruise missiles capable of carrying a 500 kilogram payload to a range of at least 300 kilometers, and associated technologies.)

The Chinese pledged their support to the MTCR on a number of occasions, but then exploited ambiguities in these promises in order to continue exporting WMD-capable missiles or missile technologies. Beijing also sought to link its compliance with MTCR principles with extraneous issues, seeking a “quid pro quo,” perhaps as it is now positioning itself to do in the current crisis.

The respected Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies summarized China’s behavior as follows:

“While China made pledges in 1991 and 1994 to the United States promising to comply with the main provisions of the MTCR and halt all sales of complete MTCR-class missile systems, it has tended to interpret these pledges narrowly and has continued missile technology transfers and manufacturing assistance to Pakistan….More recently, China has also implicitly linked its MTCR commitments to issues of increasing salience to its own security concerns, namely, theater missile defense (TMD), U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and U.S. intention to deploy national missile defense (NMD) and amend the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty.”(1)

In its January 2001 authoritative report, Proliferation: Threat and Response, the U.S. Department of Defense commented:

“China has maintained that it will not assist any country in developing nuclear weapons or MTCR-class missiles to deliver them, and has taken steps over the last several years to strengthen its control over sensitive exports. Nevertheless, Chinese entities have supported some nuclear, chemical and missile programs in countries of concern, driven by China’s overall strategic interests in South Asia and the Middle East and by domestic economic pressures.”(2)

In short, the Pentagon concluded, “China continues to be a source of missile-related technology.” (3)

In addition, in an unclassified report to the U.S. Congress issued just days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, the CIA made the following observations covering Chinese missile and other WMD export assistance. Essentially, these were that China continues to supply missile technology and related equipment to Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Libya. But CIA’s conclusions are worth quoting in full:

During this reporting period [July 1 to December 31, 2000], Beijing continued to take a very narrow interpretation of its bilateral nonproliferation commitments with the United States. In the case of missile-related transfers, Beijing has on several occasions pledged not to sell Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Category I systems but has not recognized the regime’s key technology annex. China is not a member of the MTCR.

In November 2000, China committed not to assist, in any way, any country in the development of ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons, and to enact at an early date a comprehensive missile-related export control system.

During the reporting period, Chinese entities provided Pakistan with missile-related technical assistance. Pakistan has been moving toward domestic serial production of solid-propellant SRBMs [Short-Range Ballistic Missiles] with Chinese help. Pakistan also needs continued Chinese assistance to support development of the two-stage Shaheen-II MRBM [Medium-Range Ballistic Missile]. In addition, firms in China have provided dual-use missile-related items, raw materials and/or assistance to several other countries of proliferation concern-such as Iran, North Korea and Libya.

In the nuclear area, China has made bilateral pledges to the United States that go beyond its 1992 NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] commitment not to assist any country in the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons. For example, in May 1996 Beijing pledged that it would not provide assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities.

With respect to Pakistan, Chinese entities in the past provided extensive support to unsafeguarded as well as safeguarded nuclear facilities, which enhanced substantially Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability. We cannot rule out some continued contacts between Chinese entities and entities associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program subsequent to Beijing’s 1996 pledge and during this reporting period.

In October 1997, China gave the United States assurances regarding its nuclear cooperation with Iran. China agreed to end cooperation with Iran on supply of a uranium conversion facility and undertake no new cooperation with Iran after completion of two existing projects–a zero-power reactor and a zirconium production plant. Although the Chinese appear to have lived up to these commitments, we are aware of some interactions between Chinese and Iranian entities that have raised questions about its “no new nuclear cooperation” pledge. According to the State Department, the administration is seeking to address these questions with appropriate Chinese authorities.

Prior to the reporting period, Chinese firms had supplied dual-use CW [Chemical Weapons]-related production equipment and technology to Iran. The U.S. sanctions imposed in May 1997 on seven Chinese entities for knowingly and materially contributing to Iran’s CW program remain in effect. Evidence during the current reporting period shows Iran continues to seek such assistance from Chinese entities, but it is unclear to what extent these efforts have succeeded….(6)


Detailed reporting by the United States Government and others over many years has shown that China’s record on non-proliferation is not a good one. Specifically, with regard to the MTCR, China has demonstrated time and again that it is willing to violate its written commitments. It is worth recalling the record on this vital international issue as we move to assemble the coalition to combat another pressing security challenge–international terrorism. Against this backdrop, Chinese pledges of cooperation on the terrorism front should be treated cautiously and assessed on the basis of demonstrable acts. Efforts to extract concessions from the United States will be counterproductive and need to be rejected by Washington. Beijing now has a major opportunity to evolve a more constructive and cooperative relationship with the United States at this important strategic juncture. But will it? The record is not encouraging.

David G. Wiencek is President of International Security Group, Inc.


1. Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, “China’s Missile Exports and Assistance to Pakistan,” last updated, July 2000, at website:

2. U.S. Department of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response, January 20001, p. 17, at website:

3. Ibid., p. 3.

4. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 July Through 31 December 2000,” at website: