I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb.

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College (Takoma Park, Maryland)
July 1, 2020
China Seeks to Join Nuclear, Missile Control Groups

Paul Kerr and Wade Boese

Building on recent efforts to demonstrate its nonproliferation credentials, China is seeking to join two voluntary multilateral export control regimes that seek to limit the spread of nuclear and missile-related technologies. China formally applied to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) Jan. 26, and began talks exploring possible membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Feb. 10.

The 40-member NSG is comprised of nuclear supplier states that have agreed to coordinate their export controls governing transfers of civilian nuclear material and technology to prevent nuclear exports intended for commercial and peaceful purposes from being used to make nuclear weapons. The 33-member MTCR is an export control regime that aims to limit the spread of ballistic and cruise missiles.

During his term as the rotating chairman of MTCR from September 2002 to September 2003, Polish Ambassador Mariusz Handzlik invited Beijing to participate in the regime. According to a Feb. 12 statement made by Chinese Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs Hu Xiaodi at the UN Conference on Disarmament, China sent a letter to the MTCR chairman last September indicating it was “ready to positively consider applying for joining the MTCR.”

In Washington Feb. 4, Handzlik said that three rounds of talks are scheduled this year between China and MTCR to clear up “old differences” and to evaluate Chinese export controls to see if they conform with MTCR standards. All current regime members would need to approve of China’s accession to the regime.

U.S. and foreign government officials say future Chinese membership is not preordained. An official from the Department of State said Feb. 6 that Beijing “has ongoing problems of enforcement and implementation of missile export controls,” and a European diplomat remarked the same day that “there are still questions.” However, Handzlik stated there is “good will on both sides” and that the “process has begun.”

Under U.S. urging, China has gradually moved over the past several years to bring its national export controls into line with those of MTCR members. In November 2000, Beijing declared that it would not assist other states in acquiring missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. That pledge was defined as applying to missiles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers or more—the same formulation that appears in MTCR guidelines. Then, in August 2002, China published a list of missile-related and dual-use goods that required government approval before being exported.

A Chinese “White Paper” issued last December devoted most of its space to a detailed description of China’s export controls, emphasizing their consistency with international norms. (See ACT, January/February 2004.) The paper pointed out that China maintains “control lists” of nuclear proliferation-sensitive exports that are similar to equivalent NSG lists. It also noted that China issued new export regulations for chemical and biological materials and equipment in October 2002.

China further signaled its willingness to cooperate with the United States by signing a Statement of Intent Jan.12 that “establishes a process for cooperation” between the U.S. Department of Energy and the China Atomic Energy Authority “on a range of nuclear nonproliferation and security activities,” according to an Energy Department press release. These activities include “efforts to strengthen export controls [and] international nuclear safeguards,” the department said.

State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said Feb. 17 that “we have seen progress by China” on proliferation issues and that China is “very interested in the Proliferation Security Initiative” (PSI). The PSI is a U.S.-led multilateral effort to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction and related materials. Beijing, however, offers a much less sanguine view of PSI in its statements.

State Department officials told Arms Control Today that Washington views China’s application to the NSG as a positive step but that the United States remains concerned about Chinese proliferation activity.

A November CIA report acknowledged improvement in China’s nonproliferation policies but noted possible Chinese cooperation with other states on their nuclear, chemical, and missile programs. Additionally, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Paula DeSutter told Congress in July 2003 that China is failing to enforce its export control laws properly and implied that China sometimes deliberately allows sensitive technology transfers to occur. The Bush administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese firms multiple times for illicit technology transfers. (See ACT, September 2003.)

When asked about press reports that Libya had acquired from Pakistan nuclear weapons designs of Chinese origin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressed concern and said Beijing would investigate the matter, Reuters reported Feb. 17.