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Congressional Research Service, “China and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Missiles: Policy Issues,” December 23, 2009

This CRS report is written by Shirley A. Kan, specialist in Asian security affairs.
December 23, 2009

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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 include Pakistan and countries that the State Department says support terrorism, such as Iran and North Korea. 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. According to unclassified intelligence reports submitted as required to Congress, China has been a “key supplier” of technology to North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan for use in programs to develop ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, or nuclear weapons.

Policy issues 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 promise from China on missile nonproliferation. However, continued PRC proliferation activities again raised questions about sanctions. In contrast to the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration repeatedly imposed sanctions on PRC “entities” for troublesome transfers. Since 1991, the United States has imposed sanctions on 26 occasions on over 30 different PRC “entities” (not the government) for transfers (related to missiles and chemical weapons) to Pakistan, Iran, or 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 (for two years), after a PRC company transferred technology to Pakistan, despite the November 2000 promise. 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 March 2007.

Skeptics question whether China’s cooperation in weapons nonproliferation has warranted the U.S. pursuit of closer bilateral ties, even as sanctions were required against some PRC supplies of sensitive technology. Some question the imposition of numerous U.S. sanctions targeting PRC “entities” but not the PRC government. Others question the effectiveness of any stress on sanctions over diplomacy. Since 2002, the United States has relied on China’s “considerable influence” on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and praised its role, but Beijing has hosted the “Six-Party Talks” with limited results, while the United States also resumed bilateral negotiations with North Korea. China has evolved to vote for some U.N. Security Council sanctions against nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. But it also has maintained balanced positions on North Korea and Iran, including questionable enforcement of sanctions and business as usual (particularly energy deals). Some have called for pressing Beijing to use effective leverage against Pyongyang and Tehran. However, North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009 prompted greater debate about the importance of China and the Six-Party Talks. Still, at a summit in Beijing on November 17, 2009, President Obama discussed China’s “support” for nuclear nonproliferation in North Korea and Iran.

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