"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
China Issues Missile Export Pledge; U.S. Says It Will Waive Sanctions

December 2000

By J. Peter Scoblic

China formally committed November 21 not to export ballistic missile components and technology restricted by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), marking a step forward in extended U.S. efforts to stem Chinese missile proliferation. In exchange, the Clinton administration immediately announced that it would resume processing applications for U.S. companies to launch satellites on Chinese rockets and would not pursue sanctions against Beijing for past missile transfers to Pakistan and Iran. The administration will, however, impose sanctions on the Pakistani and Iranian entities that received Chinese missile-related assistance.

The statement detailing the commitment, issued by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing, indicates that China will not help states develop "ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons (i.e., missiles capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms to a distance of at least 300 kilometers)." Though it makes no mention of the 32-member Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary arrangement restricting missile exports, the statement does say that China will "take into account the relevant practices of other countries," and the range and payload guidelines it specifies mirror those in the MTCR.

According to the statement, China will issue "at an early date" a "comprehensive" list of missile-related and dual-use items whose export will require a government license. In issuing those licenses, the statement says the Chinese government will consider the items' end-user and whether they might be used to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The statement also says that China will "exercise special scrutiny and caution, even for those items not specifically contained on the control list."

Less than an hour after the Chinese announcement, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that, in view of the Chinese promise, the United States would resume reviewing U.S. firms' applications to launch satellites on Chinese rockets, a process that had been suspended in February. Boucher also announced that the Clinton administration had "decided to waive economic sanctions required by U.S. law for past assistance by Chinese entities to missile programs in Pakistan and Iran." Boucher did not specify the nature of the assistance, but a State Department official explained that the sanctions would have been imposed for a pattern of Chinese transfers that was growing intolerable. "We were going to have to do something," the official said.

The United States will impose sanctions on the relevant Pakistani and Iranian entities, however. According to Boucher, the Ministry of Defense and the Upper Atmosphere Research Commission in Pakistan will be sanctioned for involvement in the transfer of so-called MTCR Category I systems—that is, complete missile systems. Those entities and Iran's Defense Industries Organization and its Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics will be sanctioned for the transfer of Category II items, components and technologies that can be used to make MTCR-class systems. Because of existing U.S. sanctions against the two countries, the new sanctions will have little economic effect.

Washington has long been concerned about Chinese missile assistance to Pakistan and Iran, and it imposed sanctions on China in 1991 and 1993 for transfers to Pakistan. However, in both instances the sanctions were lifted after little more than a year, when China agreed to abide by the terms of, but not formally join, the MTCR. More recently, following his 1998 summit with President Bill Clinton, Chinese President Jiang Zemin indicated that China would "actively consider joining" the regime.

Despite China's assurances, however, its proliferation of missile technology appears to have continued. In a biannual report to Congress released in August, the CIA noted that during the first half of 1999 "Chinese entities provided increased assistance to Pakistan's ballistic missile program" and that "firms in China provided missile-related items, raw materials, and/or assistance to several countries of proliferation concern—such as Iran, North Korea and Libya."

U.S. officials believe that the new pledge represents moderate progress over past Chinese assurances. "It's another step in the process," one administration official said, noting that "the more specific we can get with China, the better it is." Responding to Republican criticism of the deal, Boucher said in a November 22 briefing that the new promise is "a much more comprehensive commitment" than those made previously. However, in light of China's past actions, a wait-and-see attitude is prevalent. "How they actually implement it—that will be the proof," the State Department official said. "It's a question of what [Beijing's] political will actually looks like."

China's commitment is the result of months of talks led by Gary Samore, special assistant to the president for non-proliferation and export controls, and Robert Einhorn, assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation. The deal securing China's export commitment in exchange for the sanctions waiver and resumption of commercial space contact was finally reached in early November and was approved by Clinton and Jiang at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brunei.

Despite Beijing's promised export controls, Chinese formal participation in the MTCR will apparently remain a U.S. goal. "We would love to see [China] ultimately join the MTCR," the administration official said.

Asked why China did not simply sign on to the MTCR, given that its new export declaration mimics the regime's guidelines, Chinese embassy spokesman Zhang Yuanyuan said that Beijing does not see a "rush" to join the MTCR, which he pointed out was drawn up without China's involvement. China is still studying membership in the MTCR, according to Zhang.

After years of prodding by the United States, the timing of China's pledge is something of a question. One administration official speculated the agreement was partly intended to recognize the administration's work this fall in pushing through Congress the bill granting China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) and said that the missile agreement was an attempt by Beijing to further warm U.S.-Chinese relations. Zhang agreed, saying it is "very important in that we have successfully removed one of the sore points in the relationship."

Beijing may also be seeking to prevent punitive congressional action. In May, Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) introduced the China Nonproliferation Act, which would have required sanctions against Chinese entities exporting certain weapons, including ballistic and cruise missiles. Repeated attempts to bring the bill to a vote failed, and an attempt in September to amend it to the PNTR legislation was defeated. But Senate Republicans may introduce further non-proliferation legislation next year. One Thompson staffer expressed dissatisfaction with the Chinese promise and said, "In one way or another, we're going to come back at this again."