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“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
China Stresses Common Approach With Bush Administration's Nonproliferation Policy

Paul Kerr

The Chinese government recently issued a “White Paper” describing its nonproliferation policies that represents a rhetorical progression from earlier Chinese statements. The paper stresses Chinese policies consistent with the U.S. nonproliferation approach and downplays differences between the two, placing special emphasis on export control policies designed to prevent the transfer of materials that can be used to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The paper, made public Dec. 3, portrays China as a country that takes its nonproliferation obligations seriously. It states, “[W]ith its strong sense of responsibility, China has…formulated a whole set of non-proliferation policies and put in place a fairly complete legal framework on non-proliferation and export control. It has taken positive and constructive measures to accelerate the international non-proliferation process with concrete actions.”

According to the paper, these measures include adhering to a variety of international arms control agreements, including the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). China also agreed in November 2000 to act in accordance with guidelines set by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and refrain from assisting states in developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, even though it is not a member of the MTCR.


The majority of the paper is devoted to a comprehensive, detailed description of China’s export control “practices,” which, the paper is careful to emphasize, are consistent with international norms. These include maintaining “control lists” of proliferation-sensitive exports, requiring licenses for such exports, demanding certification that end-users of exported items will not divert them to military purposes, and employing “catch-all” controls which require exporters to apply for export licenses if they “[know] or should know” that the exported item poses “a risk of proliferation.” These controls “form a complete system for the export control of nuclear, biological, chemical, missile and…all military products,” the paper adds.

Beijing has been strengthening its export controls during the past decade. For example, China published export control regulations for missiles and related components in August 2002 after agreeing to do so as part of its November 2000 pledge to limit further its missile exports. China also issued new export regulations for chemical and biological materials and related equipment in October 2002.

Washington continues to express concerns that China is not effectively enforcing its export laws. Department of State spokesman Adam Ereli stated Dec. 3 that the United States believes China has “enacted good legislation” but that U.S. “focus is on implementation and enforcement.”

Although the paper states that Beijing’s enforcement record has improved and cites instances where violators have been caught and punished, the United States remains skeptical.

A November CIA report acknowledged improvement in China’s nonproliferation policies but cautioned that “proliferation behavior of Chinese companies remains of great concern.” The report cites possible Chinese cooperation with Iranian and Pakistani nuclear programs; Iran’s chemical weapons program; and missile programs in Iran, Pakistan, Libya, and North Korea. The Bush administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese firms multiple times for illicit technology transfers. (See ACT, September 2003.)

Furthermore, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Paula DeSutter not only told Congress in July that China is failing to enforce its export control laws properly, but also implied that China sometimes deliberately allows sensitive technology transfers to occur. (See ACT, September 2003.) DeSutter further stated that China has maintained chemical and biological weapons programs in violation of the CWC and BWC.

A Shift in Tone

In addition to describing China’s progress in enacting export control policies, the paper discusses the role of arms control in international security. Although this discussion does not articulate specific policy changes, its tone and emphasis distinguishes it from past high-level Chinese statements on nonproliferation.

The White Paper’s focus is similar to the Bush administration’s approach to arms control, which places less emphasis on international arms control agreements and stresses “supply-side” efforts to prevent the transfer of WMD materials, particularly the enforcement of export controls.

In contrast, both China’s 1995 White Paper on Arms Control and Disarmament and its 2002 Defense White Paper devote much more space to the question of nuclear disarmament and complaints about U.S. policies, such as the U.S. pursuit of missile defenses, although they also portray Beijing as working to curb WMD proliferation and describe improvements in its export control policies.

For example, the 1995 White Paper argued that stemming nuclear proliferation is “part of the process of eliminating such weapons,” alluding to Article VI of the NPT, which commits nuclear weapons states to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race…and to nuclear disarmament.” This latest White Paper, however, states that the purpose of nonproliferation is “to safeguard and promote international and regional peace and security,” and it only references disarmament in passing.

Yet, this change in tone and emphasis is not as abrupt as it may first appear. An October 2002 article by China’s Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya struck a tone similar to that of the most recent White Paper.

The most recent statement also articulates differences between the two countries’ approaches. For example, it explains that China stresses “peaceful means” to deal with proliferation threats, adding that “proliferation issues must be settled through dialogue and international cooperation”—an apparent reference to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last spring.