Last week, in a statement released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China promised that it “has no intention to assist, in any way, any country in the development of ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons.” China also pledged to take steps to improve its system of export controls, including publishing a list of missile-related items and dual-use components whose export will be restricted. In return, the U.S. agreed to lift sanctions against Chinese entities suspected of earlier proliferation activity and to consider the licensing of Chinese companies to launch U.S. satellites.
China has made similar promises in the past. In 1992 and again in 1994, China agreed to abide by Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR) parameters and guidelines, prompting the U.S. to lift sanctions. Both promises were apparently later broken after reports of Chinese missile technology transfers to Pakistan. Last week’s statement, while a positive development, will therefore be met with a certain degree of skepticism, especially from members of Congress who have criticized the Clinton administration’s policy toward China that favors free trade over proliferation and human rights concerns.
Despite China’s mixed record on proliferation, the general trend has been one of increasing cooperation. Since the end of the Cold War, China has signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and has agreed to discontinue its aid to Iran’s nuclear program. In 1998, China agreed not to transfer whole missile systems to other countries. The statement delivered last week is China’s most explicit pledge to date. The U.S. should therefore seize this new opportunity by working with China to develop and implement specific and effective export controls on missile systems and dual-use components, and to discourage the type of violations that have led to sanctions in the past. If promises are kept, the weapons programs of states such as Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea will be denied a major source of assistance, and perhaps the U.S. will be under less pressure to deploy a controversial national missile defense.