“For 50 years, the Arms Control Association has educated citizens around the world to help create broad support for U.S.-led arms control and nonproliferation achievements.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
Sino-U.S. Summit Yields Modest Advances in Arms Control Agenda
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Howard Diamond

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON traveled to China for a state visit June 25 to July 3 that produced several modest achievements in arms control and non-proliferation. At a joint press conference on June 27, Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin announced the two sides had reached agreements on the detargeting of strategic nuclear weapons, a Chinese commitment to "actively study joining" the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Beijing's announcement of additional controls on chemical precursors, and a new arrangement for end-use verification of U.S. high-technology exports to China.

Clinton said the detargeting agreement "would completely eliminate" the prospect of an accidental nuclear launch, show "mutual confidence and trust," and would be "a helpful counterweight" to the recent nuclear tests in South Asia. Critics of such detargeting agreements have argued that the arrangements are not verifiable and are largely symbolic because the missiles can be retargeted in a matter of minutes. China had previously resisted the U.S. detargeting proposal, insisting it should be linked to the United States adopting a "no-first-use" policy for nuclear weapons. When asked if the United States had made any concessions to get the detargeting agreement, Clinton said, "[W]e have not changed our position [on no first use], nor are we prepared to do so on that."

Prior to Clinton's visit, China had also rejected a U.S. proposal made in March to exchange Beijing's full membership in the MTCR and a cutoff of all missile cooperation with Iran for additional opportunities to launch U.S. satellites. Jiang's announcement that China will "actively study joining" the missile export regime may signal a shift in Beijing's position. But according to Bates Gill, a China specialist at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, while the new Chinese position "tends to suggest a favorable conclusion… there's a greater degree of disagreement in China than meets the eye. We shouldn't be too optimistic about China joining the MTCR."

Beijing's current policy on missile exports is ambiguous. At a June 27 press conference, national security advisor Samuel R. Berger said, "The Chinese in the past have said unilaterally that they would adhere to the MTCR guidelines. That is a kind of a general commitment and it doesn't necessarily include all of the technology and components that are part of the annex of the MTCR." A semi-annual CIA report to Congress published after the summit noted that "During 1997, Chinese entities provided a variety of missile-related items and assistance to countries of proliferation concern."

The Clinton administration imposed MTCR-related sanctions on China in August 1993 for selling M-11 missile components to Pakistan. But in October 1994, Beijing pledged to abide by the "guidelines and parameters" of the MTCR so the sanctions could be lifted. Subsequently, U.S. officials have acknowledged that China has stopped selling whole ground-to-ground missiles and major sub-systems (so-called Category I items), but has continued to sell missile components and technology (so-called Category II items), notably to Pakistan and Iran.

During the summit, however, Beijing offered an additional pledge on missile exports. In the Sino-U.S. joint statement on South Asia, the United States and China pledged to "prevent the export of equipment, materials or technology that could in any way assist programs in India or Pakistan for nuclear weapons or for ballistic missiles capable of delivering such weapons."

Prior to the summit, many observers predicted that Clinton's visit would not result in significant progress in arms control because China had already offered several concessions before and during the last Sino-U.S. summit in Washington in October 1997. At that summit, Clinton announced that improvements in China's nuclear non-proliferation policies and practices, together with its written pledge to end all cooperation with Iran's civil nuclear program, would allow him to put into effect the never-implemented 1985 Sino-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement. Chinese officials promised the administration that they would supplement the nuclear export guidelines they promulgated in August 1997 with new additional regulations covering dual-use nuclear items. On June 17, China's official English-language news agency, Xinhua, published the promised regulations.