Unchecked proliferation by Chinese firms has undermined a global effort to keep nuclear and missile technology out of the hands of terrorists.
The transfer of such technology to countries such as Pakistan and Iran, which are considered vulnerable to an attack by terrorists or rogue insiders, is the cause of much anxiety in the international community. At the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this week, President Obama described nuclear terrorism as the "single biggest threat to U.S. security."
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow of Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the very fact that Mr. Obama can point to the threat of nuclear terrorism is in no small part attributable to China's proliferation of nuclear and missile technology since the 1970s.
However, "the Obama administration is making no connection between the threat of nuclear terrorism and China's role in making it possible," he said.
A report by the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC) this year linked Chinese companies to nuclear and missile programs in Pakistan and missile programs in Iran. It said China was a primary supplier of advanced conventional weapons to Pakistan, which it described as China's most important partner in military technology cooperation.
One of the clearest transgressions in this relationship took place in 1995, when state-owned China Nuclear Energy Industry Corp. (CNEIC), a subsidiary of China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC), exported 5,000 ring magnets to the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratory in Kahuta, Pakistan. Ring magnets are critical parts of high-speed centrifuges used to enrich uranium to weapons grade. The facility was named for the creator of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, who in 2004 confessed to supplying nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea through a black market.
Currently, CNNC is collaborating on nuclear power projects in Chashma in Pakistan's Punjab province. The CIA says entities in China continue to sell technologies and components in the Middle East and South Asia that are dual-use and could support weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missile programs.
Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said China is a problem because it has been essential to Pakistan's nuclear program. "If you subtract China's help, Pakistan wouldn't have a nuclear program," he said.
Not everyone agrees that such proliferation activity has the support of the Chinese government.
Charles Freeman, a former assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs who is currently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said while there are "obvious holes" in Chinese efforts to prevent proliferation, the export of dual-use technologies in the region is not supported by the government in Beijing.
"As a general government policy, nuclear proliferation is something the Chinese government seeks to control," he said.
Mr. Freeman said China has in some instances helped check proliferation. While transferring technology to Iran in the past decade, for example, the Chinese blew the whistle when they realized that Iran was a proliferation concern.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject, said: "Beijing is mainly concerned about trade, so when the issue is a dual-use technology transfer, it is more inclined to see the glass as half full and less inclined to take steps to prevent the sale.
"If they see a transaction that's clearly not legit, they would be more likely to get involved," the official added.
According to Ken Lieberthal, a former senior director for Asia on the National Security Council and currently at the Brookings Institution, there also have been some instances in which the Chinese stopped transfer of technology after the U.S. called their attention to proliferation concerns.
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said, "China is strongly committed to safeguarding and strengthening the international nonproliferation system. It is firmly against nuclear proliferation in any form."
He noted Chinese President Hu Jintao's attendance at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this week as proof of China's "unambiguous attitude toward nonproliferation."
The bulk of China's proliferation activities took place in the 1970s, '80s and the early '90s. Since then, Chinese entities have continued to engage in proliferation activities. Since the early '90s, Chinese firms have been the subject of U.S. sanctions for violation of the Arms Export Control Act, Export Administration Act and the Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act.
Mr. Wang said the U.S. sanctions against Chinese entities were "unwarranted" and based on "allegations," which he described as "unfounded."
China has enacted export-control legislation, but implementation of those laws has been spotty, said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security. He said there is a "real need for China to better implement its export-control laws."
But Mr. Wang said China has established over the years a "comprehensive set of policies that prohibit Chinese entities from involving in proliferation activities."
Mr. Fisher, meanwhile, noted that China's export-control laws came onto the books "years after it had undertaken a large part of its proliferation activities." He contends that China has sold enough nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan, Iran and North Korea to spur secondary proliferation among those states.
"China has continued to its proliferation goals through its client states," he added.
Mr. Fisher finds it disquieting that China would continue to broaden its nuclear relationship with Pakistan, given the threat posed to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal by potential rogue insiders and terrorists on the outside. "If China were to go to Pakistan and take back its nuclear and missile technology, that would fundamentally reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism," he said.
A U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal struck by the George W. Bush administration has further complicated the situation. Pakistan, citing extreme power shortages among its major cities and towns, is seeking a similar deal with the U.S.
Mr. Milhollin said it's naive of the U.S. and the West to think that they can export nuclear reactors to India and not expect other countries to sell similar technology to Pakistan. "If the U.S. can sell to India, why can't China sell to Pakistan, or Russia sell to Iran?"
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