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Congressional Research Service, “China and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Missiles: Policy Issues,” August 16, 2010

This CRS report is written by Shirley A. Kan, specialist in Asian security affairs.
August 16, 2010

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Congress has long been concerned about whether U.S. policy advances the national interest in reducing the role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missiles that could deliver them. Recipients of China’s technology reportedly included Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran. This CRS Report, updated as warranted, discusses the security problem of China’s role in weapons proliferation and issues related to the U.S. policy response since the mid-1990s. China has taken some steps to mollify U.S. and other foreign concerns about its role in weapons proliferation. Nonetheless, supplies from China have aggravated trends that result in ambiguous technical aid, more indigenous capabilities, longer-range missiles, and secondary (retransferred) proliferation. Unclassified intelligence reports told Congress that China was a “key supplier” of technology, particularly with PRC entities providing nuclear and missile-related technology to Pakistan and missile-related technology to Iran.

Policy approaches in seeking PRC cooperation have concerned summits, sanctions, and satellite exports. On November 21, 2000, the Clinton Administration agreed to waive missile proliferation sanctions, resume processing licenses to export satellites to China, and discuss an extension of the bilateral space launch agreement, in return for another PRC promise on missile nonproliferation. However, PRC proliferation activities have continued to raise questions about China’s commitment to nonproliferation and the need for U.S. sanctions. The Bush Administration imposed sanctions on 20 occasions on various PRC “entities” (including state-owned entities) for troublesome transfers related to missiles and chemical weapons to Pakistan, Iran, or perhaps another country, including repeated sanctions on some “serial proliferators.” Among those sanctions, in September 2001, the Administration imposed missile proliferation sanctions that effectively denied satellite exports, after a PRC company transferred technology to Pakistan, despite the promise of 2000. In September 2003, the State Department imposed additional sanctions on NORINCO, a defense industrial entity, effectively denying satellite exports to China. However, for six times, the State Department waived this sanction for the ban on imports of other PRC government products related to missiles, space systems, electronics, and military aircraft, and issued a permanent waiver in 2007. Since 2009, the Obama Administration has imposed sanctions on four occasions on PRC entities for missile or other weapon proliferation.

Skeptics question whether China’s cooperation in weapons nonproliferation warrants the U.S. pursuit of closer ties, even as sanctions were required against PRC technology transfers. Some criticize the imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting PRC “entities” but not the government. Others doubt the effectiveness of any stress on sanctions over diplomacy. Meanwhile, since 2002, the U.S. approach has relied on China’s influence on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons. Beijing hosted the “Six-Party Talks” (last held in December 2008) with limited results, while the United States resumed bilateral talks with North Korea. China’s approach evolved to vote for some U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. Some have called for engaging more with Beijing to use effectively its leverage against Pyongyang and Tehran. However, North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009 prompted greater debate about the value of China’s cooperation. After much diplomacy, the PRC voted in June 2009 for UNSC Resolution 1874 to expand sanctions previously imposed under Resolution 1718 in 2006 against North Korea and voted in June 2010 for UNSC Resolution 1929 to impose the fourth set of sanctions against Iran. However, China also has maintained balanced positions that include support for North Korea and Iran, including questionable enforcement of sanctions and business as usual (especially energy deals) that undermine international pressure.

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